Speech on the Go: It's Becoming a Wireless World

Speech recognition technology and associated systems have emerged to satisfy consumers' needs for simplicity and for efficiency in operations across several industries. For this simple reason, the technology has already become an important asset to many commercial interests and the industry appears, at least to many market analysts, to be on the verge of a healthy, rapid growth period. As the technology becomes more robust and provides more capable systems with new and more advanced features, we can expect to see new applications and solutions emerge to address a plethora of new industries and markets. The wireless telecommunications industry is one area in which speech technologies have already experienced some success, and it holds great potential for further widespread implementation. Wireless voice, data, Internet access, voice commerce and in-vehicle applications are all related areas and markets that use the technology. The following major market trends, motives and driving factors are stimulants to more widespread implementation:
  • Better and more robust speech/voice systems
  • New standards such as VoiceXML
  • Expansion of wireless subscribers and wireless voice and impending data use
  • Growth of wireless and wireline Internet connectivity
The importance and the easy use of voice systems, in the area of wireless and wireline, will address many market segments in terms of users. Even though not all segments have crystallized because of the infancy of the industry, segments have begun to develop:
  • Travelers: An increasing number of people travel and want information any time, anywhere. Tourists and business people who want to keep track of their daily information such as e-mail, stock quotes, news or driving directions can do it easier and in a safer manner with voice-enabled wireless clients.
  • Wireless and wireline users: These are users who need information but who use a phone to access this information when away from homes or desks. Speech technologies will enable voice commands to deliver information from the Internet typically viewed via a PC or a laptop.
  • Elderly people/children: Those who are not enamored with the new Internet age may still benefit by using speech recognition-capable devices to call or to access the Net. For the older generation there is a higher probability of health emergencies, making voice enabled-devices more useful.
  • Disabled/handicapped: Sedentary patients and the blind are just two examples of the large group who can use speech enabled-devices to help themselves without dependence upon a second person.
  • Drivers: The contribution of speech recognition is obvious to people while they are driving. Professional drivers will benefit more because they spend most of their working time in the vehicle. Speech recognition in-vehicle enhances the driver's efficiency. They can activate and control in-vehicle devices or access more information with less distraction. In the consumer vehicle, those using wireless devices will be better able to command a vehicle more safely, and may also be within the letter of the law as more legislation is considered banning the use of cell phones (speech-enabled handsets may be the exception).
Although the speech/voice recognition technologies address fixed and mobile users, their major positive impact could be on the wireless industry. Wireless service providers are always trying to find new features and applications to enhance their offerings. With speech-enabled handsets and services, operators can attract more users and increase the usage time and therefore their revenue streams. Consumers now have more reasons to use wireless phones; the convenience and the easy access to the Internet via voice, or purchases and transactions via voice are just two good reasons. This should give another boost to the growth of the wireless industry because of the higher adoption rate of mobile phones raising the ceiling of penetration of the wireless industry. According to Allied Business Intelligence's primary research on wireless users and non-users, 25 percent of the U.S. population has no existing reason to use a wireless phone. Voice portals are already up and running, allowing Internet access to be accessed by wireless users. However, after further development of companies' voice sites, voice portals will serve as search engines for those voice sites or for the voice Internet. BeVocal, Tellme, Quack.com, Talk2.com and Audiopoint are a few examples of voice portal companies that currently provide information about stocks, weather, driving directions, news and e-mail access through their portals. According to ABI's forecast, there will be almost 71 million voice portal users in North America by year-end 2005. [IMGCAP(1)] Most of the voice portal participants agree that their services will mainly focus on the wireless users. However, there will be a transitional period where the voice portal users will try the new services via their fixed phones. This is obvious, because in the beginning, users would like to be familiar with the new services without spending their expensive cell phone minutes (Chart). As a result, ABI forecasts that in 2001 there will be 3.3 million fixed vs. 1.1 million mobile voice portal users in North America. This proportion will change, and by the end of 2005 there will be 16.5 million fixed vs. 55.3 million mobile voice portal users. The developments of speech recognition technologies and of Internet access via voice have given birth to a new type of commerce ‹ voice commerce. Consumers can make purchases and transactions via voice, over both the Web and telephony networks. Speaker verification/authentication will make those transactions easier and safer, allowing users more confidence. Consumers can purchase products or make financial transactions by using just their ³voice print.² The V-Commerce Alliance was formed to develop security and other v-commerce standards. The growth of the voice sites, in combination with the use of language translation software, will also stimulate the growth of v-commerce. There are already many companies that have developed voice sites and this number should grow at an incredible pace. Right now there are approximately 500 voice sites, with an average yearly growth rate of 150 percent. Under ABI's forecast, the world market for v-commerce will be worth $2.3 billion in 2001, and rise to $4.7 billion in 2002 and to $50.6 billion by 2005. Speech recognition technology and its applications will have a significant, positive impact on the movement of wireless data. Voice interfaces will make use of wireless data devices and services less complicated. For example, the personal digital assistant, or wireless handset, is a great data tool. However, one of the basic limitations that wireless-thin clients have is the tiny screen and the tiny keyboard. It is annoying for users to type and to search the Web by using these types of devices. Speech/voice recognition technology can enable PDA users to access information faster and in a less awkward manner. IN-VEHICLE ISSUES AND APPLICATIONS
The in-vehicle market will be another area with great potential for speech recognition technology. Legal actions, for driver and pedestrian safety, are already being taken in many countries after serious discussions about the increased number of accidents caused by distracted drivers using cell phones. Moreover, the recent expansion of in-vehicle information systems is an indicator of the importance of the in-vehicle applications. This demand stimulated manufacturers to develop more robust systems with enhanced capabilities and features. Voice recognition, or hands-free technology, will be in tune with these activities because it will contribute to the whole movement as a safer and a faster alternative to the current touch-tone technology and systems. SAFETY ISSUES
Approximately 20 countries around the world have already made it illegal to use a wireless phone without a hands-free system while driving. In the United States, an increasing number of states and cities are considering taking action for the unsafe use of the mobile phones in cars. For example, Jersey City, NJ, may ticket the people who talk on the phone while driving. Violations could cost motorists $200 to $1,000. Suffolk County, NY, legislators plan to formally introduce a law that could impose a $150 fine against motorists caught using handheld cell phones on the road. According to a Jersey City councilman, studies have shown that motorists who routinely drive and talk on the phone are four times more likely to be involved in accidents. A New England Journal of Medicine article also pointed out that those using a cell phone while driving are just as likely to be involved in an accident as one who has a blood-alcohol level of 0.1, the minimum illegal limit in most states. Since 1995, at least 35 states, including New York, have considered bills to ban or to restrict cell phones by drivers. The Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have contracted studies and investigations of the safety implications of wireless communications in vehicles. In 2000, the DOT has stated it will take a more active role in trying to make strict guidelines encouraging drivers to concentrate solely on driving instead of driving and talking on the cell phone, driving and accessing mobile wireless Internet services or even concentrating too much on the burgeoning telematics services that are now available. According to recent research conducted by E-GM, the electronic commerce division of General Motors, 70 percent of wireless phone calls in America are made while driving. ABI verified those results by contacting its own primary consumer research. When its national sample, consisting of cell phone users and non-users, was asked about the places where they use a cell phone, 75 percent of the respondents ranked the car as the place the cell phone is used most often. The Department of Transportation is urging car companies to make an effort to offer emergency communications system in their new cars and trucks. Automakers will be asked to equip 10 percent of their passenger cars and trucks and 25 percent of their commercial vehicles with emergency response systems by 2010. Another important issue is the cost associated with the car accidents. According to the DOT, there are nearly 6 million crashes on U.S. roads annually. On average, these accidents killed 41,000 people and caused 3.2 million injuries, many of them serious. Those accidents cost money, about $150 billion annually in medical bills, lost wages and lost productivity. IN-VEHICLE APPLICATIONS
By using speech recognition, developers can create alternative interfaces for in-vehicle devices and applications such as wireless e-mail, CD, radio or cellular phone operation. Those devices will be used in a vehicle to make it much easier and much safer because there will not be a need to touch the specific device ‹ for example, to dial a number on the phone or to change the radio station while driving. Voice recognition capabilities and features such as voice activation, voice dialing, voice response, text-to-voice and vice versa may easily be adopted by in-vehicle manufacturers. OnStar's market research continues to show that its subscribers want OnStar's hands-free, voice-activated capabilities extended to such emerging services as personal calling and voice-based personalized Web information. The diffusion process will depend on the ability of the in-vehicle information systems service providers to deliver bundled high-value services at reasonable prices. Manufacturers and developers already took action and tried to take advantage of the new technology. Motorola and Mercedes Benz announced in January 2000 that they will put Motorola's StarTAC hands-free phone into Mercedes' year 2000 models. Voconix offers a product that is typical of hands-free voice dialing kits. It allows dialing by voice, and attaches to an existing cell phone through an adapter. ATX Technologies, a telematics provider company, will use IBM's Direct Talk voice processing platform and ViaVoice speech recognition technology to deliver ATX's telematics services such as location-based routing assistance and eventually, position-based commerce transactions. According to ATX Technologies, ATX will work with IBM to deliver an interface to the IBM Direct Talk voice-processing platform that is operated by the user with natural voice commands, with most information delivered in a voice format. Whether the driver wants directions, traffic information or e-mail, voice response can deliver the information quickly, efficiently and safely without the driver having to operate console buttons. If users cannot get the information they need from automated response, their telematics system will allow them to talk directly with an operator. OnStar has selected magicTalk voice platform as the voice user interface for the OnStar Virtual Advisor. The Virtual Advisor will provide hands-free, voice-activated access to Web-based information services in vehicles. With the magicTalk core technology integrated into the OnStar Virtual Advisor, OnStar subscribers will be able to access personalized information such as e-mail, sports, weather, news and market headlines, all through easy-to-use voice interactions from Verizon's nationwide wireless network. OnStar has announced that it would use General Magic's licensed speech recognition technology from Nuance Communications with Virtual Advisor.
Anna Karampahtsis is an analyst at Allied Business Intelligence.
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