In 'ET, the alien', the endearing alien gutted a Speak & Spell, a popular talking toy that taught children to spell, to create an interplanetary communicator. The brain of that red device, presented in 1978, was a technological innovation: it was the first voice synthesizer integrated into a chip, a challenge at the time. We discover the history of this pioneering processor when 35 years have passed since the premiere of the famous film go to colorful wall lamp.

“ET My house. Phone " . Pointing with his long finger towards space, the most endearing alien in the history of cinema pronounced those words in a scene that has been recorded in the memory of a whole generation, which discovered that friendship can be interplanetary thanks to ' ET El Extraterrestrial ', a film that came to the big screen now 35 years ago.

The seasoned and good-natured being, in which Steven Spielberg embodied the imaginary friend of his childhood, not only had gifts for telekinesis, but also proved to be a 'maker' already in 1982. With a saw, a can, a few cables and electronic guts of an educational toy called Speak & Spell (Talk and Spell), Eliott's friend builds a communicator to contact his own .

That artifact that chattered to teach spelling was already famous among children before its stellar appearance in the famous film. Moreover, the brain (or throat) of the toy was a technological advance: it was the first voice synthesis chip in history .

Recognized as an IEEE Milestone (a distinction granted by the prestigious Institute of Electric and Electronic Energy), the Speaker Speak & Spell landed in the homes of thousands of families when personal computers began to appear and Apple or Microsoft took their first steps.

At Christmas 1978, four years before the little Spaniards saw ET and Elliott pedaling in the celluloid sky, the engineer Gene Frantz visited with his daughters the toy section of a Walmart in Texas. A crowd of children swirled around a showcase. Inside, was that red toy that the alien would open.

"That feeling of reward far exceeded any financial compensation he could have received for having developed the Speak & Spell," says Frantz in his book on the development of that pioneering device .

This engineer worked at Texas Instruments , one of the few companies that manufactured chips at that time. Not surprisingly, a deceased engineer of that company , Jack Kilby , is considered the inventor of the integrated circuit .

In the mid-1970s, Franz was part of the calculator department , one of the company's flagship products. In addition to the scientists, the company had launched an educational, with a face and even a mustache. Little Professor worked the other way around than the others, since he presented a mathematical problem to the student in writing and it was he who had to answer.

Franz's boss, Paul Breedlove, thought the same concept could be used to teach them to spell, but how to get the device to speak? "He had just moved to the department of calculators from our team of voice recognition and knew the speech synthesis could be the solution , but that required a breakthrough , " explains Frantz to . At that time, implementing "real-time voice synthesis in a single integrated circuit," as the engineer recalls, "was impossible . " Not surprisingly, the Intel 4004, the first microprocessor in history , suitable for calculators, was born in 1971.

Although in reality the first machine that spoke electronically had already spoken its words in the 1930s and a gigantic IBM computer had already performed 'Daisy bell' in the 1960s (the first song recorded by a computer using voice synthesis in history, and that HAL 9000 would interpret in '2001: an odyssey of space') , they wanted to replicate the human voice on a small silicon chip.

Together with an integrated circuit architect and a new expert employee in speech recognition (Larry Brantingham and Richard Wiggins), they went to work to develop a small and affordable talking machine .

"The amazing thing about this development is that our management team, like the industry, considered that we were doing an impossible task ," Franz details, so nobody expects anything other than a failure. However, "it turned out to be the best they could have done, because it gave us the ability to do it without much help from management," he recalls.

Until then, talking dolls used tapes with recorded phrases to be able to speak, but Wiggins promoted the idea of ​​using a technique called linear predictive coding so that the voice was generated synthetically , without the data needed to get it taking up too much space. “The voice synthesizer was a mathematical model of the human vocal tract. The stored data were the necessary parameters to mold the model for each particular sound, ”says Frantz.

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"That feeling of reward far exceeded any financial compensation he could have received for having developed the Speak & Spell," says Frantz in his book on the development of that pioneering device .