Friday, December 6, 2013

How to generate an alert tone from a computer

I recently read a Code Project thread that got into a discussion about beeps, internal speakers and alerting the user. This reminded me of a story from a previous life...

It was the early 90s and I worked for a company that provided software to E-911 dispatch centers. There was a machine room with racks of computers and then the actual dispatch center which only had user I/O devices. The monitors and keyboards were run through special extension hardware that allowed VGA, keyboard, mouse, serial and parallel ports to be removed from the computer by a fair distance. It seems like the system would drive them up to 100 feet away, but my memory could be faulty. In any case, we had all these extension boxes scattered throughout the center but all the built-in computer speakers were back in the server room.

A feature of the software allowed dispatchers to place calls in a pending queue. This was for low priority calls that didn't have resources available for immediate dispatch. After a timeout, things in the queue would start escalating. First they'd change color. Then they'd start flashing. The Chief wanted the next level to be an audible alert. And, with this being the fire department, audible alert didn't mean a simple "beep." It needed to be impossible to ignore, klaxon-loud and obnoxious. And of course there wasn't any budget for any significant hardware. I thought about it on the drive home and had an idea as I fell asleep.

The next morning I stopped by Radio Shack and picked up a $10 monophonic amplifier. Something simple. (Amazingly, I just searched for it and they still sell the same model 20+ years later, albeit at a slightly higher price.) I also got a 1/8" patch cord and power adapter. When I got to the dispatch center, I cut off one end of the patch cord and connected the leads to the ground and transmit pins on an RS-232 connector on one of the extension boxes. Then I plugged in the amplifier, turned the volume down low, created a short text file with some random characters and cat'ed it to the appropriate /dev/tty port. An earful of noise rewarded my efforts.

Now I knew my idea would work. Playing around with different repeating character sequences gave different patterns. Changing the baud rate would change the frequency. Eventually I came up with a combination that worked pretty well. It was loud, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The Chief loved it. And it cost less than $20 and an hour or two of work.
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