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Mastervoice ECU (The Butler in a Box Tries again)


Veteran Member
Oct 22, 2008
Kamloops, BC, Canada

http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7739.jpg

Two years ago I made another blog entry discussing the Mastervoice Butler in a Box.
As a refresher this was a late 80's product that gave you X10 home automation in a small box with speech recognition and speech synthesis. Overall it looked great on the outside but on the inside it had a number of questionable things going on such lots of circuit modifications and a PIN security system that left you SOL if you ever lost that code and it was unplugged.
So it was no surprise that the Butler in a Box sold so amazingly poorly. Mastervoice however continued into the 90's and by the mid 90's they were sitting on mountains of unsold units that were nearly ten years old. As a last attempt it seems they pushed the Butler in a Box under a new name as the Mastervoice ECU, an x10 control system oriented towards people with mobility problems.
March 19 said:
The Mastervoice ECU Single User Unit is a voice activated environmental control system with speech output that allows users hands-free operation of appliances, lights and telephone. Once the user has trained the ECU, it can recognize particular words. These words can be used as commands to activate various appliances: lights, TV, stereo, electric beds, etc. Sixteen smart timers allow appliances to turn on or off at pre-programmed times. Appliances are activated remotely using the AC line in the house with X-10 remote control modules. A telephone is built-in, allowing the user to remote dial, answer and speak on the phone. The ECU can detect intruders and request that they identify themselves. The ECU can control 42 devices by voice, 42 devices by time, and has 8 macros. A macro is a string of up to 16 devices that you can control with one command. The ECU also has autoreverse to control devices with just two commands. Options: ICI Infrared Controller Interface, The Ram Pack, Voice Cartridge, and Sprinkler Controller.
The price is $1295.
Again, it failed to move many units and not long after Mastervoice folded.

If you remember from my last one while it seemed to operate fine the VFD display had been damaged and thus it had no display. On and off over the last few years I tried finding another one within a pricerange as overpriced units came and went with no buyers and then finally an ECU popped up on ebay, with two peculiar black boxes.


http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7722.jpg

With the exception of a new badge the unit is COMPLETELY IDENTICAL to the Butler in a Box. Even the bottom sticker identifies it as one. The only thing missing is that when you flip the front down to reveal the membrane control buttons the little sticker indicating how to navigate the menus was not present.


So looking much better than the first unit I plugged it in. There was a click, there was LED's lighting up...then nothing.


http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7725.jpg

What I did not know when I had the first unit was that the red LED indicates noise and the green LED indicates motion according to the motion sensor. Both still responded normally but there was STILL NO VFD DISPLAY. Well I guess that means we gotta crack it open and take a look. No real need to make another teardown of the same unit so I'll skip that part but the first thing I saw once the back was off was not pleasant.


http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7726.jpg


We know from the other unit that the main CPU and possibly its operating ROM is housed in an epoxy potted black brick at the top of the board. It seems that when the epoxy for this unit was prepared something went wrong and once installed it never really set and over the last 20 or so years the extremely thick (but still soft enough that you can leave imprints with a screwdriver or fingernail) epoxy ran down the PCB. Along the way it covered the important sockets for the EPROMs and PROM and presumably either gummed up their sockets or caused the chips to roast. It will take time to chip away enough to unsocket the chips and ultimately replace the sockets and THEN it might work.
Alright, I guess while we are in here we can see what else has changed and inspect the VFD. Looking around it seems that the second board with the Intel microcontroller is now glued to the front half of the unit and has a much lower component count and only a half dozen wires now running to it. The main logic board however was entirely unchanged from the Butler in a Box. The good news is that the VFD module is still good. The nipple is in place this time and both getter flashings are still a shiny silver.



The back plastic shell was unchanged from previous models, so the signatures were still present.


That did it with the ECU so I closed it up. The only other thing that came with the ECU were those two identical but mysterious boxes.
Both were entirely nondescript besides a toggle switch on top and a ribbon cable leading to a 25 pin connector. My raw assumption was they plugged into the Parallel port of the ECU/Butler in a Box, but there was no splitter or passthrough socket. Perhaps you could only use one at a time? What are these anyways? Lets crack open the first one.



http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7734.jpg


Okay so this one is pretty obvious. The ribbon cable enters and goes into an Intel 8255A peripheral controller. From there I see a DS1210 Non-volatile memory controller and a 62256 SRAM chip. On the backside is a single battery. This has to be some sort of device for backing up the contents of the memory. Presumably either for making double sure you did not lose settings or for cloning settings to other units. This must be the Ram pack the article above mentioned.

Now for the other one ..


http://i11.photobucket.com/albums/a166/ballsandy/New Bucket/CGS_7736.jpg


Okay this is interesting. The PCB layout is exactly the same. We still have that PAL and the peripheral controller but this time there are two EPROMS marked "Lady". There used to be a youtube video up that showed that originally the Butler in a Box had a male sounding synthesized voice. I guess this has to be the voice cartridge that gives you a female sounding voice instead. Still no indication however how the heck you connected more than one to one box, unless I've received the modules for two boxes and only one box and they could only ever take one module at a time. I guess that sucks for the person who wanted the female voice and sprinkler control.
Speaking of which, that seems to be the last module I do not have. Well, that and the software that you could use to connect it to a PC. Have both been lost to time? Not a clue. I guess I'm still on the hunt for another unit that's not going to be broken in some way. Then I could fix the other two and have three in the house!
It has come to my attention that after Mastervoice folded the technology and pretty much everything reemerged on the market again but from Automated Voice Systems Inc. (AVSI)
AVSI maintained an internet presence into the 21st century with an arguably extremely dated website where you could continue to find more information on the former mastervoice products, optional accessories, a priceguide which made you want to ask Visa what your credit limit was and as of the last snapshot on the wayback machine ( http://web.archive.org/web/20080511165352/http://www.mastervoice.com/ ) a mention that the Butler in a Box was seen on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and How'd They Do That in January 2005. After this snapshot the website fell into oblivion.