The 2009 Star performers

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The idea of being a star can take many forms, drawing references from the big names in Hollywood, music, and sports. But in the speech world, stars have a far different meaning. Star Performers can be brazen upstarts that have shaken up the industry with a new product or offering, existing companies that have breathed new life into a faltering market segment, revitalized giants that have re-entered the market after years of absence, or long-standing companies that have turned an existing product on its head. Regardless of where they fit into these categories, the four companies selected this year by the editors of Speech Technology have one thing in common: They’ve all had a profound effect on the market as a whole—whether or not they meant to—during the past year. 

Watch some of our winners accepting their award.

H-Care: The Face of Video IVR

In the United States, interactive voice and video response (IVVR) technology has yet to make waves. IVVR systems require a robust infrastructure, a standardized 3G wireless network, and the proliferation of 3G mobile devices and applications—all of which are, for now, lacking in the U.S.  

But overseas, things are very different, and IVVR systems are a viable option—thanks in large part to the work of Italy’s H-Care.

A developer of platforms for multimodal, multichannel, self-service, and customer care, H-Care is best known for its Human Digital Assistant (HDA) platform, which combines high-quality, real-time animation, 3D rendering, and state-of-the-art voice synthesis to deploy human-like assistance on Web portals, mobile phones, and kiosks. 

Among H-Care’s many customers are Telecom Italia, the Italian betting agency Lottomatica, and Fiat Group Automobiles—for which the company recently deployed its advanced IVVR solution.  

“What we are doing at H-Care is working on a platform which enables multichannel, self-service capability through the Web, mobile video calls, and multimedia messages,” says Umberto Basso, the company’s president and CEO. 

Fiat customers using H-Care’s IVVR product—featuring an avatar named “Chiara”—can access an online car configuration program to design a personalized car and book a test drive. The system will place an outbound call to remind them of the scheduled date, and call again after the test drive to deliver an automated customer satisfaction survey. The system also has an inbound telephone component that lets users call into the IVVR, navigate through menus with voice commands, and watch streaming videos.

“The component used in [HDA] is called a ‘Face Engine,’ which allows for real-time, high-quality video creation, and it delivers a streaming version of the video usable for Web applications, or a streaming version of the video usable for IVVR,” Basso says. 

Behind the Face Engine is the “Brain Server,” which Basso says is used both on the Web and in the IVVR or standard IVR channels to build the logic behind the face so that all of the dialogues, paths, and prompts are generated dynamically.

“[Fiat is] embracing the technology on both the Web and on the video call,” Basso says. “Most of their customers are mobile customers—they’re in the car—so they have to reach customers while they are on the go.”

Ribbit Jumps into Voice Automation

When it comes to cutting-edge innovation, the speech industry need not look further than Ribbit. Billed as “Silicon Valley’s first phone company,” the California-based firm aims to help empower businesses to shape the future of communications by creating solutions for a new world of global communications.  

Recently purchased by British Telecom, Ribbit provides telephone carrier infrastructure, voice services, and the integration of voice with business applications. Among its high-profile partners are companies like Adobe, OpSource, SimulScribe, and—perhaps most notably—Salesforce.com.

It was this last partnership—and the company’s software-as-a-service solution that speech-enables Salesforce.com—that made serious waves in 2008.

According to Greg Goldfarb, vice president and general manager for enterprise applications at Ribbit, the impetus for Ribbit for Salesforce relates to mobility and increased sales productivity via the field use of customer relationship management systems.

Goldfarb—who stresses that Ribbit for Salesforce is only one of many applications the company is developing across the enterprise—says Ribbit’s approach assesses the challenges to productivity in the field and addresses them in unique, easy-to-use ways. 

Ribbit for Salesforce brings together day-to-day sales tools—like mobile phones, email, Salesforce.com, and text messaging—and ties these different information portals together via voice-to-text technology. 

With Ribbit for Salesforce, a salesman stuck in a long meeting can have his voicemail converted to text and sent to his mobile phone, allowing him to receive important messages and improve responsiveness. Once the meeting is over, he can hop into his car and speak his meeting notes into his mobile phone. The content is converted to text and entered into the company’s CRM system. When this is finished, the salesman can continue to drive while using his mobile phone to call in and dictate a draft of an email. Upon returning to the office, he can open Ribbit for Salesforce on his computer, edit and send the email, look at customer records, and check messages—the system stores them as both text and voice files.

Goldfarb asserts that Ribbit is the first company that has linked mobile voice  communications to CRM workflow. 

“Integrating your mobile phone line, voice messaging, voice-to-text, and CRM—they all work together to really eliminate a lot of admin work and enable salespeople to focus on selling, not admin,” he says. “And that really works to accelerate the sales cycle and make salespeople more effective.”

Verizon Opens for Business

In tough economic times, the benefits of going with a hosted speech offering are many: fixed costs; few or no up-front fees, infrastructure demands, and staffing requirements; greater service reliability; automatic updates; and a slew of others. For many contact center operators, though, a long-standing barrier to adoption of hosted speech solutions was the apparent loss of control and security, both of which they could only get with an on-premises solution.

For those companies, Verizon Business provides a new way to do business that combines the best of both worlds. Open Hosted Speech Services (OHSS), which Verizon first launched in July 2008, allows enterprises to better customize and control the speech services used to interact with their customers—they can even house the VoiceXML application code, for example, on their own servers—while still enjoying the benefits of a fully hosted platform.

The new service is based on the industry standard VoiceXML, and includes applications like speech recognition, text-to-speech, and interactive voice response. Customers retain control and ownership of these VoiceXML-based applications, while also having the option of running these applications on Verizon Business’ hosted IVR platform or porting the applications to another platform of their choice. 

“With something that’s hosted, the infrastructure to process the speech recognition, TTS, and related tasks resides on Verizon Business’ network rather than at the customer’s site,” explained Tom Smith, senior product marketing manager of IVR and speech services at Verizon Business, during a podcast. “With the open platform, the application can reside separate from the infrastructure.”

OHSS, he further explained, combines the benefits of hosted services, which also include scalability and geographic redundancy, with the security and control that were previously available only in premises-based solutions. 

OHSS “is an extension of customer enablement,” Smith said, noting that the solution “offers an unprecedented level of flexibility.”

Verizon Business has priced OHSS on a per-use basis that combines per-minute and transaction pricing, with considerations for call volumes and platform resource requirements.

Also included in the offering is Verizon Business’ professional services team, which can assist customers in developing and deploying applications and integrating them with Verizon Business’ other contact center solutions. OHSS customers can also access a full suite of standard reports, including detailed billing backup and performance maintenance, through the Verizon Enterprise Center, a secure, global online portal. The reporting captures daily, weekly, and monthly speech application activity that customers can retrieve from virtually anywhere at any time.

In Sensory Range

EMBEDDED SPEECH PROVIDER Sensory has spent the past 15 years digging out a comfortable niche for itself—selling the tiny speech chips that power a number of consumer products, from toys like Furby to cellular phones. At the same time, it has always had an eye further down the field. Believing that the future of embedded speech would be in client/server interactions—a smaller device linking up to a network of more powerful machines that could perform complex computations—the company has been filing patents in the space almost since its inception. They make up as much as half of its holdings.

And with this year’s release of its chip in BlueAnt’s V1 and now Q1 Bluetooth headsets, Sensory is finally making good on its investment. The devices, powered by Sensory’s BlueGenie voice interface, not only allow users voice access to a number of command-and-control features, but also provide voice-enabled access to network services from Google or Microsoft—both of which have partnerships with Sensory—for directory assistance, driving directions, locating the cheapest gas station, getting stock quotes or sports scores, and more.

The offerings have proven successful with consumers and reviewers, too. The V1 has consistently ranked between five and 12 on Amazon.com’s list of top Bluetooth wireless accessories; it ranks in the top 100 for cell phone and services sales overall;  Crackberry.com rated the device as No. 1; and CNET, in naming the device as one of its editor’s choice products, identified it as the world’s first voice-controlled headset, and heaped praise on the V1’s voice commands and its tie-in with Google’s GOOG-411 directory assistance service.

Beyond the Bluetooth headsets, the company earlier this year announced several significant deals with more than a dozen consumer electronics companies that introduced products featuring its speech recognition technologies. From hands-free car kits and clock radios to remote controls and iPod docking stations, Sensory has really set in motion the goal of simplifying interactions between humans and the consumer electronics products they use every day, replacing awkward button presses with simple voice commands, and trading annoying flashing lights and beeps with pleasant sounding voices.

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