• March 1, 2008
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

Speech in the Next 'Digital Decade'

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Microsoft in early January pledged to continue development of more natural user interfaces, including voice, as part of a technological revolution it calls the Second Digital Decade.

Speaking in his final keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas before he steps down from his leadership role at Microsoft, company chairman Bill Gates launched this second digital decade. In his speech, Gates said the decade will be one in which "computing power will become ubiquitous" and user interfaces "will more closely reflect the way people interact with each other.

"The first digital decade was largely driven by keyboard and mouse," Gates said in his address. "Just in the last two years, we’ve started to see the emergence of other modes of interaction," including speech.

Joined on stage by Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices Division, Gates highlighted a number of Microsoft initiatives that reflect how computing is moving away from the desktop to mobile settings. These include Sync, the in-car system giving users access to their MP3 players and cell phones using voice commands, as well as the mobile voice search technologies Microsoft gained in its acquisition of Tellme Networks last year. "One of the huge growth areas is in mobile search, and voice is really going to be the natural way to use a phone with mobile search," Bach said during the presentation.

But while Microsoft might think of itself as a pioneer in these areas, some analysts are quick to point out that the software giant is just one player in a crowded field of developers working on similar technologies.

"Bill Gates is not the only one talking about this. He’s trying to leave a legacy, but he’s part of a global movement that’s been going on already," says Judith Markowitz, a speech industry analyst and consultant.  "IBM, Apple, Microsoft, and even the universities are looking at making the human being the interface. It’s where we are headed—human-centric development."

Bill Meisel, president of TMA Associates, agrees. "If we’re talking in the ‘2001/Hal’ mindset, we’re just not there yet, and if we were, people would probably be terrified by it," he says. "But it’s not like this is speculation. It’s been pretty quietly happening all around us."

Still, Meisel is glad to hear Gates continuing to talk up speech. "He’s been a big supporter of speech for a long time, even though Microsoft as a company has only gotten into it recently with its product set," he says.

And the marketing hype that Microsoft has been plugging into its Sync system has been good for the entire industry, he maintains. "Microsoft is saying implicitly to the American public that speech does indeed work. It’s getting us past the hurdle of people saying it doesn’t work. You hardly ever hear that anymore."

But while Microsoft is touting Sync and Tellme as cutting-edge examples of the human interface, Markowitz is quick to point out that there are many other examples already, including the touch-screen interface for Apple’s iPhone, Nintendo’s Wii video game system that relies on a player’s motion to control onscreen activity rather than a typical joystick, and myriad voice-enabled navigation and mobile search systems.

To build on speech’s ability to eliminate keystrokes, Bach introduced the latest version of the Tellme platform that now incorporates GPS capabilities to identify a caller’s location. An additional Tellme component currently in development—and not likely to hit the streets for another year to 18 months—will use speech to recognize and process credit card numbers to buy movie tickets or make restaurant reservations during the same directory assistance call. More advanced speech-based purchasing capabilities, for airline tickets or retail items, are probably two or three years away, according to Marci Pedrazzi, a Microsoft/Tellme spokeswoman.

For Microsoft and Tellme, it’s the next natural progression. "People are accustomed to doing things with voice now more than ever before, and the benefits of it are finally coming to bear," Pedrazzi says.

However, Markowitz feels that several other companies, like Google and Yahoo!, might beat Microsoft to the rewards. "Whether Microsoft is the one to get there first is in doubt," she says. "It’s more likely to be Google, based on all they are doing with their GOOG-411, Google Maps, Google Earth, etc."

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