Science  /  Antecedent

The Forgotten '80s Home Robots Trend

Alexa’s interface is treated as revolutionary, but you might be surprised to learn of its predecessors from the mid-1980s.

Based on the brochure for the Arctec Gemini, a life-size robot that could self-navigate, self-charge, and included an advanced operating system for its time, it had a lot more in common with an Amazon Echo than a robot in an old sci-fi film.
“Gather your family around you and say ‘GEMINI!’ loudly. The robot will respond with ‘GEMINI LISTENING!’ and automatically enter voice command mode,” the brochure stated.

The Gemini was the most technically advanced of the personal robots available in 1985, with features that remain impressive today. It not only spoke but took voice commands. It was self-charging, and retained a map of your home for navigation purposes, a feature that was only introduced into the Roomba line in 2015, 13 years and 5 generations after its introduction. It could sing with synthesized piano accompaniment, recite poetry, and connect to early online services like CompuServe.

Unlike today’s conversational interfaces, the Gemini took voice commands in an English-like programming language called VOCOL. This ultimately means that, where Alexa’s ability to respond to cues is limited to simple commands that vendors supply, Gemini owners were able to give much more complex and specific instructions, provided they were willing to read the manual. A fully-loaded Gemini also came with BASIC and assembly language support, and while users were not expected to be technically inclined initially, the documentation was designed to guide them to the point where they could add substantial features by themselves—and encouraged them to send their improvements back to the company.

“We are making available documented source code listings [...] at nominal cost so you can further your education and enjoyment of the GEMINI,” the device’s user manual stated, adding that users “will be able to develop new software and hardware enhancements.” 

“Share these enhancements with us and other owners and we will do the same.”