This device was (and maybe still is) literally years ahead of the
competition when first introduced to the public at the January 1983 Consumer
Electronics Show. When attached to the TI99/4A it allows speech recognition
with specific Milton Bradley game and educational modules. The user speaks
instructions into a microphone, and the 99/4A understands the spoken words and
responds accordingly. With the MBX system, our old fashioned 99/4A's can do
tricks that even the most sophisticated modern home game machines can't do.
Voice recognition is NOT available even today for Nintendo and Sega game
systems. These days you can find voice recognition hardware costing hundreds
of dollars advertised in Computer Shopper for use with MSDOS and MAC computers.
In T.I.'s last complete price list of 99/4A products published in June 1983,
the MBX system lists for $129.95. It's too bad only only about 300 were ever
Although the title of this article might suggest that
the MBX system was made by T.I., this is not so. The MBX
was manufactured and sold by the Milton Bradley Company.
T.I., under license from Milton Bradley, manufactured and
sold the specific software modules designed for use with the
MBX. The MBX system comes packaged in a box with the the
same kind of "photograph of the product on a black
background with white letters" style found on 99/4A console
boxes. The actual MBX hardware is in the same gray plastic
used for the most recent 99/4A consoles and official T.I.
cassette program recorders. As a registered 99/A owner, I
received by mail in early November 1983 from T.I. (not from
Milton Bradley) an advertisement describing the MBX and MBX
specific software. Apparently Milton Bradley intended to
have the MBX on store shelves for the 1983 Christmas season,
but canceled all further production after BLACK FRIDAY.
There is no serial number on my recently purchased used MBX,
but it bears a sticker that says "MBX Control number 8310".
This may mean that my unit was manufactured in the 10th week
of 1983. My guess of 300 MBX units actually produced is
based on the very limited availability of this product for
sale at TI shows I have attended and in the possession of
T.I. owners known to me, as well as the fact that UNISOURCE
once advertised that they had 200 MBX's for sale.
There are three parts to the MBX "system", the control
box, the joystick, and the headset/microphone. The heart of
the system is of course the control box. It measures 10 x
7.5 x 2.5 inches and includes its own built in speech
synthesizer. This box plugs into the joystick AND the
cassette recorder ports of the 99/4A console. The MBX
system is designed to be used with just the console and
specific software cartridges. There is no provision in any
of the MBX software modules for disk usage. Since one of
the MBX connections occupies the cassette jack, you can't
use a cassette recorder either. You must disconnect the
regular speech synthesizer to use MBX. To hear speech, the
two speech synthesizers cannot coexist.
The control box has a side port for the required AC power
source. On the front of the control box are two 9 pin male
D ports for joysticks, a jack for the headset/microphone,
and an on/off switch. When you slide this switch to the ON
position the MBX control box responds by saying "ready" in a
well modulated female voice. This voice, and all speech
generated by the MBX system, comes from a speaker at the top
back of the control box, not from the monitor speaker.
Music and other non-speech sounds continue to be heard from
the monitor's speaker. Only spoken words (synthesized
speech) are heard from the MBX system's speaker. You have
to turn on the MBX before you turn on the console in order
for the 99/4A to recognize the presence of the MBX. When
activated, the MBX system disables the FCTN/0 QUIT console
keypress. On the top of the control box is a 64 position
membrane keypad. The top row of 8 keys on this keypad
functions in the same way with all the MBX software modules
that utilize this keypad. These top row keys include RESET,
VOLUME UP (the volume of the speech coming from the MBX's
built in speaker, not the music and sounds coming from the
monitor speaker), VOLUME DOWN, MIC (toggles on and off the
ability of the microphone headset to "hear" spoken words),
YES, NO, PAUSE (stops game action), and GO. The action of
other 56 positions on the control box keypad is specific to
the particular software module in use. A very decorative
keypad overlay comes with those software modules designed to
utilize the rest of the MBX control box keypad. These
overlays slip easily and snugly over the top of the keypad.
The headset superficially resembles a set of "walkman"
earphones, but in fact contains no earphone speakers. The
things that cover your ears are just pads. The microphone
is positioned in front of your mouth and its position is
adjustable. Physically the headset unit is flimsy. The
wire leading to the microphone is thin and subject to
stretching and damage at the point where it enters the
adjustable microphone arm of the headset as the microphone
arm is adjusted back and forth. Fortunately a handheld
microphone designed to plug into a cassette recorder will
also work with the MBX if the headset microphone breaks.
The advantage of the headset over a handheld microphone is
that the headset allows easy two handed manipulation of the
special MBX joystick.
How does MBX allow the 99/4A to respond to voice
commands? At the beginning of each session with an MBX
software cartridge that allows voice recognition as an
option, the user is asked if he wants to use voice
recognition. This is always optional. All the MBX
cartridges can be used WITHOUT voice recognition by using
the keyboard and/or the MBX keypad for input instead. If
voice recognition is chosen, the user is asked which
commands are to be given in voice. It is possible to use
voice for some commands and the console keyboard or MBX
keypad for other commands, or to have all non joystick input
by voice. The computer then directs the user to speak the
possible commands (big, small, left, right, pencil, pen,
centerfield, shortstop, etc) into the MBX microphone. This
"voice training" of the MBX to recognize the user's voice
patterns is repeated twice. Voice patterns are stored
digitally on chips inside the MBX for the duration of the
session, until the MBX is reset or shut off. This voice
pattern storage is probably similar to that of some modern
telephone answering machines. My home answering machine
does not store the greeting message on cassette tape.
Instead, my "This is the Good household answering
machine..." message that greets incoming calls is stored on
a chip and played to callers every time I don't answer the
phone quickly enough. As with the MBX, I can quickly erase
my "stored on a chip greeting" and replace it with another
on my answering machine. An MBX user can use any word
desired for a particular command, as long as the user is
consistent in using this word. For example, in CHAMPIONSHIP
BASEBALL a user can speak the imaginary name of a fielder
when asking for a particular fielding position. During
voice training the computer can ask the user to speak the
word "shortstop" and the user can reply "Tony". As long as
the user remembers that Tony is playing shortstop, the game
will work OK.
After voice training the game begins and the computer
responds to sounds it hears via the MBX microphone. Users
have to be careful to ONLY speak when they want the computer
to perform some action. Casual conversation by the user can
result in unexpected things happening as the computer
interprets some of this conversation as specific spoken
commands. The solution to this problem is to turn off the
MIC using the MBX keypad when response to voice commands is
temporarily not desired. A small symbol continuously on
screen indicates the ON/OFF status of the microphone.
What software is available? The following cartridges by
Milton Bradley were specifically designed for use with the
MBX expansion system. All these include speech synthesis
and many also allow voice recognition. The speech synthesis
of these software modules (but not speech recognition) can
be accessed using the regular TI speech synthesizer without
using the MBX system. They were officially released by T.I.
in 1983 and 1984. The last (June 1983) 99/4A catalog
published by TI lists these modules for $50 and $60. I have
seen some of the "MBX system required" modules listed by
TRITON in the past for as little as $3. Currently they are
all available from L.L. Conner Enterprise for $15.
Quoting from the booklet TEXAS INSTRUMENTS HOME COMPUTER PROGRAM LIBRARy that came packaged with many TI modules sold in late 1983: "The BRIGHT BEGINNING SERIES includes four games which teach elementary programming, music, and other learning concepts. Ages 4-8."
I have been told that Barry Boone has written some
software that will allow programming the MBX and its non
standard joystick. Such software would turn the MBX into
something much more significant than a game enhancement. So
far, this software has not been made available to others.
|NAME||Must have MBX||Uses Keypad||Uses rotation knob||buttons 1,2||Speech Reconition|
|TERRY TURTLE'S ADVENTURE||Yes||Yes||No||No||Yes|