Is Speech "Cool?"

Now that school’s back in session, those of you with college students have probably been talking planes, trains and automobiles to help get that future CEO/doctor/attorney/poet off to campus. Yet one of the truly rewarding parts of that logistical challenge has probably been hearing your son or daughter say, "Hey I called Amtrak/United/Continental (take your pick) and this voice recognition thing answered—pretty cool."

Now that’s almost worth $35,000 a year in tuition just to get that kind of validation, isn’t it? Maybe not. But in this not-technically-a-recession-but-it-sure-feels-like-one economy, every bit of business has to be carved out of the ground. So it’s important at this year’s SpeechTEK show to recognize that the big applications, creating what we at The Kelsey Group call "speech encounters," are rolling out. If your average 19-23 year-old demographic is taking notice, this technology’s got a future.

That brings us to an intriguing question. It’s the kind of question consultants love because there’s no correct answer: Is speech a "cool" technology? To that we must immediately add: What do you mean by "cool" anyway?

Today’s marketing and media planners are all chasing the youth demographic. And nowhere is that more apparent than in wireless communications, where carriers are chugging the Kool-Aid faster than you can say "keg party." This is partly due to a desperate need to generate a return on 3G investments, growing non-voice minute revenues (a.k.a. "data" revenues), in part from multimedia messaging services (MMS). That’s why we’re doomed to see an endless parade of "cool" youths juxtaposed with sleek new 3G handsets and miniature cameras for the next few semesters or more. I don’t know about you, but it sure feels like the early wireless Internet all over again.

Ask any teenager or young adult what "cool" is and they’ll give you a negative definition more often than not: it’s not that. And they could be quite easily pointing at a wireless MMS ad. I can’t tell you how cutting the teenagers in our Wireless Youth focus groups are when it comes to deriding wireless Internet advertising on TV – "like we would ever do that."

One of the reasons we are quite bullish on consumer speech applications—ranging from Amtrak’s Julie to Sprint’s Claire—s that they have personality. Thanks to companies like IBM, Nuance, SpeechWorks, pure-play TTS providers such as AT&T Natural Voice and Rhetorical and their respective channel partners, the art/science of persona development has come a long way. Why is this important? Because personality is cool. Young people respond to the medium of voice-with-personality.

Of course, this is based purely on anecdotal evidence. And while we would love to get empirical and statistically valid about this, we also think it’s intuitively obvious. Our kids have been visually blasted since they were barely out of the cradle. They grew up on the Web, chilled with bone-crunching video games, and have experienced every kind of special effect known to Industrial Light & Magic. Voice is something new, not in-your-face or frantically trying to impress. Thus, it’s cool.

The other part of this is the "speech encounters" story. For example, calling FedEx and finding that you don’t have to punch in a zillion touchtones to get a piece of information any more. The unexpected release from previously tedious chores, that’s another facet of "cool." I actually watched my technically-savvy wife end a conversation with a recognizer the other day by saying "No thank you, that’s all for today." I’m sure every Speech Technology Magazine reader has a similar anecdote. And as capabilities grow, even misrecs start to take on a certain serendipitous flavor. (I'm not even going to go into what natural language and conversational interfaces will do to raise the "cool factor," partly because we just published a white paper on this topic.)

An over-zealous Sprint VoiceCommand said to me recently, "Calling Stocks!" That’s not what I wanted; but hey, it’s kind of cool to know I can do that if I want to. So whether it’s your neighbor gushing about how he can retrieve his office email over the phone on his commute or your teenager dialing in for a horoscope on Tellme, remember the stuff we show off at SpeechTEK and obsess about in our daily routines really is cool.

Mark Plakias is a senior vice president and managing directorof communications and infrastructure for The Kelsey Group. He can bereached at (609) 921-7200.

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