If there’s a common thread running through the four companies named as Star Performers, it’s that they’ve all realized the true benefit of speech technologies is the ability to communicate while not being tethered to a computer or landline phone. Whether they’re used behind the wheel of a car, while walking around town, or while staring at a television in the living room, the speech technologies being recognized this year have given rise not only to a world of mobility but also to a multimodal environment in which voice is just one way to access information, goods, and services. All four companies have transformed the way people interact with the devices they use daily.
Microsoft: Staying Kinected
Microsoft has already seen its Tellme speech technology successfully incorporated into its Bing search engine, Windows Phone 7 mobile phone platform, interactive voice response systems, Windows 7 computer operating system, Exchange Server 2010, the Ford SYNC and MyTouch systems, and the Kia UVO. It already enjoys a significant share of speech usage and revenue with these products, and thousands of companies and millions of people use some form of Tellme technology every day.
Just when it seemed that Microsoft speech technology was everywhere, it invaded the living room in November with the release of Kinect for its Xbox 360 gaming console. Through a natural user interface that relies on gestures and spoken commands, Kinect enables you to control and interact with the company’s Xbox 360 videogame consoles without having to touch the game controllers.
In addition, users can conduct headset-free party chat over Xbox Live, but the system does a lot more. Kinect also lets users voice-control their televisions, enabling them to call up Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, Last.fm, and other content simply by saying what they want. They can enjoy controller-free entertainment with live, streaming, and on-demand sports, movies, and TV shows and access millions of songs through the Zune music library and portable music players. Using a multiarray microphone, Kinect’s voice recognition capabilities enable Xbox 360 to conduct acoustic source localization and ambient noise suppression.
The Kinect experience has been so successful that Kinect holds the Guinness World Record as the “fastest-selling consumer electronics device,” beating both the iPhone and iPad. Kinect sold an average of 133,333 units per day, with a total of 8 million units, in its first 60 days.
To further expand the system’s use, Microsoft released a non-commercial Kinect software development kit for Windows this spring and expects to have a commercial version available later in the year.
Numerous developers are researching possible applications for Kinect that go beyond the system’s intended purpose of playing games. Robotics, for example, is one area being studied, and other possible uses include videoconferencing, surveillance, medical research, and modeling.
Sensory: Pulling the Triggers
At Sensory, the Truly Handsfree Triggers speech recognition technology is taking over many of the company’s customer design wins. A low-power, highly accurate phrase-spotting technology, Truly Handsfree Triggers allows products into which the technology is embedded to be placed into “listening” mode waiting for a designated keyword or phrase. When the user utters the phrase, the device and app wake up to await the next voice command.
Truly Handsfree Triggers first hit the market in Bluetooth car kits, such as the BlueAnt S4 True Handsfree Speakerphone, but Vlingo in the fall became the first smartphone application provider to incorporate the feature into an application, specifically its Vlingo InCar. Users of the existing Vlingo app can wake up and control their mobile devices, dictate into text documents (such as tweets, email, and text messages), update status messages on Facebook, and open and control third-party applications.
“We’ve known for some time that consumers don’t want to always have to hit buttons to call up voice search applications,” Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan says. “Now with Sensory’s Truly Handsfree voice triggers, it’s possible to create a voice user interface that allows users to talk to devices and get back information without relying on touch.”
The hands-free capability is particularly useful for in-car scenarios, such as voice-controlled navigation and search, where it is important to keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. In the home, Truly Handsfree Triggers has the potential to make any number of devices—such as alarm clocks, cookbooks, or cameras—accessible remotely by voice.
Since the fall launch of the technology, several other device and application manufacturers, like Motorola, Plantronics, Mattel, Samsung, and Kensington, have licensed the technology. Hallmark is even using the technology in a line of popular children’s books that come with stuffed animals that listen, respond, and interact while a parent reads a story.
In October, Sensory began shipping Speech Trigger software development kits for mobile devices running either Apple’s iOS4 or Google’s Android operating systems.
iSpeech: Meeting a Driving Need
With more than 9 million unique users and half a billion messages read in the 18 months since it launched DriveSafe.ly, iSpeech probably has prevented thousands of car accidents attributed to drivers reading or responding to text or emails while behind the wheel.
DriveSafe.ly is a free mobile application that reads text messages, email, and even social media updates and automatically responds. The application uses iSpeech’s proprietary text-to-speech technologies to read incoming messages aloud through a mobile phone’s speakers or Bluetooth headsets. Also, DriveSafe.ly can automatically send a response to every incoming message, letting senders know that the recipient is driving and will respond when he reaches his destination. Users can customize or disable their auto-response messages.
A new feature uses speech-to-text to allow for a fully automated text message and email response by voice. With version 2.0, the user is prompted for a voice command that allows for voice response, auto-response, repeat message, or return call.
DriveSafe.ly, which has one-touch activation, comes in two formats. One is a free, advertiser-supported version that reads as many as 25 words per message, including text message and email shorthand (such as “LOL”), and features a text auto-responder. A premium version, for $13.95 annually or by subscription at $3.99 per month, also lets users select a female or male voice, can read messages of up to 500 words in length, and supports more than 20 languages.
Launched for the BlackBerry and Android, iSpeech in March released a version for the iPhone. In January, iSpeech partnered with Cobra Electronics so DriveSafe.ly now works via CB radios and marine products.
“The problem of texting while driving is huge and steadily growing,” iSpeech CEO Heath Ahrens says. “With the advent of mobile email and text messaging, people are constantly reading and typing messages on their mobile devices, even while behind the wheel.
Unfortunately, lives are put at risk by distracted driving every time we text or email while operating a vehicle. We developed DriveSafe.ly to allow people to stay connected via text messages and email, but to do so in a responsible and safe way.”
SpeechCycle: Taking IVR to the Smartphone
By 2013, mobile phones will overtake the PC as the most common Web access device worldwide, Gartner says. And enterprises must respond with customer care solutions that are more than just mobile versions of the customer portals on their Web sites. SpeechCycle, which has carved a niche in customer care, jumped far ahead of the 2013 curve when it created a mobile division in March. The unit will focus exclusively on meeting the growing demand for customer care solutions on the smartphone.
“The launch of the Mobile Division of SpeechCycle is the next step in our evolution,” Zor Gorelov, CEO of SpeechCycle, said in a statement. “We have had great success in providing intelligent, phone-based self-service applications that improve the customer experience while reducing costs. Extending these capabilities to the mobile platform is a natural progression for the company.”
Two weeks after announcing the division, SpeechCycle launched SmartCare Mobile, the company’s first smartphone platform and application suite for customer care. Companies can plug SmartCare Mobile into customer service applications to create custom widgets for surveys and feedback, notifications, billing, support, and scheduling. SmartCare Mobile also has integrated mapping so that companies can send geographically targeted ads to interested customers.
SmartCare Mobile supports all of the leading global smartphone OSes, including Android, iOS, Windows Phone 7, and BlackBerry, on a single application platform.
“It allows customers to bypass traditional IVR menus and get right to the applications they want to use. It creates a highly differentiated customer experience,” says Alan Pan, vice president of product management at SpeechCycle.
SmartCare Mobile consists of a native device client, cloud-based services, and an extensible integration framework that optimizes the user interface and interaction experiences for smartphones. The user does not hae to go to a company’s Web site; an embedded browser allows Internet access.
SmartCare Mobile is a white-label application that customers can access when they download a participating company’s customer care application. Several companies are now piloting the application.
News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at email@example.com.