Why the Need for Speech Technology Is Greater Than Ever

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You are in your car making a hands-free call via the car's Bluetooth connection; however, the company you called has a system that only allows touchtone inputs. Your car won't allow you to use the keypad unless you are at a full stop, and it's illegal in most states to use the phone while driving.

You just got off your flight. You have your briefcase in one hand, your luggage in the other, your phone is in your pocket (or on your wrist), and your Bluetooth is in your ear. How do you get to the app to request a car to pick you up, or find out the gate number of your next flight, or find another flight if your flight was canceled?

There are countless reasons why full integration of applications using speech technology is needed now more than ever before. There are the scenarios outlined above, for instance. And here's another reason: Communication technology packaged in a watch-sized device is not conducive to a tactile user interface. Not everyone will enjoy using (or have the full functional use of) their finger to select an app on a device small enough to wear comfortably on your wrist. Even the use of a wrist dial to move between applications can be difficult for many to manipulate. The advertisements make smart watches look great on TV, with their magnified text messages, but the actual words of a text message have to be tiny to fit on such a screen.

Phones have more and more capabilities: emails, text messages, banking applications, biometrics, and, of course, games. Our mobile phones may soon become our own personal assistants, reminding us of appointments and then providing driving directions to them or connecting us to the conference bridge; reminding us when prescriptions need to be refilled, and then placing the order; or telling us if our flight was delayed or canceled, and then assisting us with making other flight arrangements. The possibilities are unlimited.

And although a number of the generic interfaces to these phones can be speech-enabled using Google Voice, Siri, or a similar system, once you are in a company's mobile application, the speech technology no longer works.

This is where the need for speech is so apparent. It would be wonderful if every application were linked by a single speech interface. Imagine a fully automated, speech-driven communication device that fits in your ear. Wake up your device and say, "Did my check to the mortgage company process in my Best Bank checking account?" Or: "Pay my utility bill." Or even: "Are there any tickets for a Saturday evening performance of Wicked playing in Phoenix?" Voice biometrics would be your access into the world.

Speech recognition is here; Siri, Google Voice, and Cortana can all tell jokes, give us the weather, and take us to Web sites when asked. But there is a stopping point for every application, and the number of other applications it integrates with is minimal. Text to speech (TTS) is available; however, it is not able to read all of the emails and text messages that come into your device. And, let's face it, without that TTS integration with all applications, how does someone read what is coming across on a device sized to fit on a person's wrist?

With these opportunities for growth, it's an exciting time for speech technology, and it will be even more thrilling as the technology unfolds. Perhaps sooner than we think, companies will be able to develop that speech-enabled device small enough to be an earpiece—yet packed with sufficient technology to become your personal assistant.

The next frontier is to do all of this without having to look as though we're talking to ourselves. But that may be a few more years in the making. And right now, I'm not sure I want any device able to read my thoughts. 

Vicki Broman is the manager of the voice user interface (VUI) design team at eLoyalty, part of the Customer Technology Services division at Teletech.

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