Talk Quickly Without Talking Faster

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Every day before my wife leaves her office she calls to let me know when to expect her. Recently, I did a little experiment to see how much time she spends on the call when I don’t answer my cell phone and she leaves me a voicemail instead. The process of dialing my number, waiting for the phone to start ringing, waiting for it to transfer her to voicemail, listening to my very brief personal greeting, and listening to the system default message requires about 60 seconds. The message, “Hi. I’m on my way home. It’s 4 p.m. now,” takes about four or five seconds to say. Thus, more than 90 percent of the time on that simple call is spent fiddling with the phone interface or waiting for a connection. In other words, we—the consumers of telephone service—completely ignore an absurd waste of our valuable time.

No wonder instant messaging (IM) is so popular with younger people. They’ve made a rational choice for a quicker interface. I, too, am a fan of IM, but even with my full-keyboard phone it would take me about 30 seconds to fumble my way through a similar message. Text is simply not as efficient as voice.

In March, I went to the Emerging Communications Conference (eComm) in San Francisco. There, a San Francisco-based voice communications platform vendor named RebelVox gave a riveting demonstration of a telephony interface that eliminates almost all of the overhead of making a telephone call. The company separates the act of sending your voice from making a connection, both of which are no longer bound in a rigid, linear time sequence. As a user, I select the name of the person I want to call from a list in what appears to be a standard instant messaging client. The application brings up a history of all of my calls and text and voice messages in typical IM format. I then touch the talk button and start to speak: My voice message transfers immediately to the person I’m calling. 

A Vanishing Act

If the person happens to accept the call in real time, he’ll hear my call in real time and we can speak directly. Otherwise, my call becomes a message in his IM window, and he can tap on my message to hear it at any time. The overhead of dialing, ringing, and listening to announcements vanishes from the interaction.

I’m terrifically enthusiastic about this innovation for two basic reasons (assuming, of course, that RebelVox can deliver on the promise contained within the demonstration video on its Web site, www.rebelvox.com): 

• First, this invention absolutely meets the criteria for a truly revolutionary innovation by breaking the connection between voice communications and time, akin to the way TiVo broke the connection between TV shows and time.

• Second, as soon as I saw those voice messages appear in an IM window I started to speculate about how speech technology could make the basic idea even more useful. Text-to-speech is certainly the easiest to implement and clearly very useful. If I’m driving to work and I want to review my recent interactions with my wife, I set my phone to play (via its speakerphone) my most recent conversations in sequence—not just the voicemail, but also the text messages through text-to-speech. 

For that matter, why shouldn’t the system routinely record all of my business voice calls and play them back as well? Compression is inexpensive, disk space is cheap, and I’ll bet RebelVox’s platform makes it particularly easy to create recordings.

Speech recognition can provide some obvious and some subtle benefits. Brief voicemail messages can become short text messages in the IM window. 

Better yet, perhaps some clever person can find a way to display just the gist of the message in keeping with the brief nature of instant messages. 

But beyond that is a more subtle advantage, namely voice search. I use IM extensively for business, and all of my IM software provides searchable transcripts. If the RebelVox platform were to record entire conversations and implement data mining, my phone calls would become just as useful a history as my email and instant messages. We’d be one step closer to the elusive unified messaging platform that would let us manage our businesses by topic instead of by fragile (and sometimes frantic) mental indexes to a half-dozen different communications channels. Now that would be something to call home about.

Moshe Yudkowsky, Ph.D., is president of Disaggregate Consulting and author of The Pebble and the Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions. He can be reached at speech@pobox.com.

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