Smart assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant are always ready to respond to our beck and call, but talking electronics, particularly those with convincing human voices, are a fairly recent innovation. The earliest talking devices sounded like something straight out of nightmarish science fiction, but that didn’t stop me from being fascinated by a peculiar talking pyramid from the ‘80s whose sole purpose was to save you from having to read a clock.
As a child of the ‘80s, my earliest experiences with electronics that could talk came from movies and video games. The robots in Star Wars, like C3P-O and R2-D2, seemed innocent enough, but that was because their voices were either provided by a human performer, or a bunch of bleeps and bloops edited together in a way that made the robots seem friendly and approachable. By comparison, truly artificial voices — those generated by a computer — deeply creeped me out, and as a young boy I can remember deliberately avoiding going any where near arcades because of a game called Berzerk which featured robots yelling menacing phrases like ”Get the humanoid!” in unsettling synthesized voices.
I came to associate the cold, emotionless delivery of the earliest talking electronics with evil robots and computers whose only goal was to wipe out humanity, and it led to an incident in the early ‘80s where my uncle was showing off his new car and encouraged me to climb into the driver’s seat. Little did I know that it was one of the first vehicles that could talk, with warnings about lights being left on and seatbelts not buckled, and as soon as it started speaking to me I jumped out of the car as fast as I could and bolted into the house where I knew a car couldn’t reach me.
It was an irrational fear, but as far as my young mind was concerned, nothing good could come from a device that could talk. That is, until I was introduced to a weird pyramid-shaped alarm clock that Seiko released in 1984.
Unlike most grandparents who tend to shy away from the latest and greatest electronic devices and pine for ‘simpler times’, my grandmother was genuinely fascinated with the progress of technology, even if she didn’t understand it and her mastery of modern electronics ended somewhere near using the TV remote to “watch Comcast.” Having moved from Poland to the US at a young age, she maintained her fascination with the world around her and a passion for learning throughout her entire life, even though she never had the opportunity for higher learning. As my interest in electronics grew, she would always respond with a genuinely interested and impressed, “wow, those computers!” whenever I told her about the latest and greatest tech.
It wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother to receive novelty gadgets for gifts as a result, and one of those was a bedside clock that absolutely didn’t look the part. Instead of releasing a traditional alarm clock with glowing red numbers that could also speak, Seiko wanted the talking functionality to be the star of the show and the biggest selling point for its digital clock. So it threw everything we knew about alarm clock design out the window and released a small featureless pyramid with a single button on top and all of the traditional digital clock bits hidden on the underside.
Setting the time, date, and alarms was still done using a series of tiny buttons beneath a small LCD display found on the bottom of the pyramid (I can remember my grandmother always asking my help when the battery died and the clock needed to be set again) but all the magic happened when you pressed the pyramid’s silver tip, which, after a shrill beep, would speak the current time aloud. Trying to describe how its voice sounded in words is almost possible (you can hear it speak at around the 27-second mark of the video embedded above) but it’s a voice that everyone in my family can still easily imitate.
The clock still sounded completely artificial, but its voice had enough of a hint of emotion and the genuine inflections of human speech that I was instead completely fascinated by it. A talking device that sounded vaguely human? At the time I thought it was one of science’s greatest achievements, and equally amazed it somehow existed on my grandmother’s nightstand. In hindsight I’m sure the novelty of the device wore off for everyone else long before it did for me, because visits to grandma’s house were peppered with incessant announcements of what time it was, even if nobody cared or asked.
To my dismay, the Seiko talking pyramid clock didn’t take the world by storm like my younger self thought it deserved to, and while the company later included the technology in fancier models, the scarcity of information about the clock online tells me it was an obscure and long forgotten device. To the best of my knowledge, the clock eventually died as most cheap digital clocks do, but not before the silver finish on the pyramid’s button was worn almost completely away: a testament to how often my grandmother actually used the feature.
As for the technology behind it? I’m sure the electronics that powered the Seiko clock’s voice are as primitive as ancient horse-pulled wagons are to modern cars when compared to what powers today’s smart assistants. As frustrating as voice-controlled smart assistants can still be, the actual voices they use are full of believable warmth and emotion which is probably why we still keep trying to engage with Siri despite her endless failed attempts to do what we actually want. But if there’s one thing she can do well, it’s read the time, and I like to believe that Seiko’s pyramid was a trailblazer for such functionality.