Making a Homemade Stephen Hawking

It isn’t easy communicating when you have any form of speech impairment. In such cases, a Speech-generating device (SGD) becomes essential to help you talk to the world. When coupled with other ailments that limit body movement, the problem becomes worse. How do you type on a keyboard when you can’t move your hands, and how do you talk when your voice box doesn’t work. Well known Scientist Stephen Hawking has been battling this since 1985. Back then, it took a lot of hardware to build a text entry interface and a text to speech device allowing him to communicate.

But [Marquis de Geek] did a quick hack using just a few parts to make a Voice Box that sounds like Stephen Hawking. Using an arcade push button to act as a single button keyboard, an Arduino, a 74HC595 shift register, a 2-line LCD, and the SP0256 hooked to an audio amplifier / speaker, he built the stand-alone speech synthesizer which sounds just like the voice box that  Stephen Hawking uses. Although Dr. Hawking’s speech hardware is quite complex, [Marquis de Geek]’s hack shows that it’s possible to have similar results using off the shelf parts for a low cost solution.

There aren’t a lot of those SP0256-AL2 chips around. We found just a couple of retailers with small stock levels, so if you want to make one of these voice boxes, better grab those chips while they last. The character entry is not quick, requiring several button presses to get to the character you want to select. But it makes things easier for someone who cannot move their hands or use all fingers. A lot of kids grew up using Speak and Spell, but the hardware inside that box wasn’t the easiest to hack into. For a demo of [Marquis de Geek]’s homemade Hawking voice box, check the video below.

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Teaching the Speak & Spell four (and more) letter words

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Before it became the darling of circuit benders the world over, the Speak & Spell was a marvel of modern technology. Complete with a microprocessor and voice synthesizer, the Speak & Spell was able to speak a limited vocabulary that [Furrtek] thought should include words such as, “al qaeda”, “necrosis”, and “butt”. The Speak & Spell included an expansion port for cartridges containing a larger vocabulary, and with a huge amount of effort [Furrtek] created his own Speak & Spell carts that allow it to talk like a sailor.

The Speak & Spell ROMs were stored on a very strange memory chip; instead of a parallel or serial interface, the chip reads five nybbles at a time before returning the saved data. At first, [Furrtek] thought he could get an ATtiny microcontroller, but the way this memory chip is set up made it impossible to send and receive data even on a 400kHz I2C bus.

The project eventually found some decent hardware in the form of a CPLD-based cartridge that was more than fast enough to interface with the Speak & Spell. After that, it was only an issue of converting words into something the speech synth can understand with some old Windows 3.1 software and finally burning a ROM.

The end result is a Speak & Spell with a perverse vocabulary and is much, much more interesting than a circuit bent piece of hardware with a few wires crossed. Check out the video after the break.

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