Speech Industry Sees a Flurry of Patent Activity

Since 2000, there have been 21,281 patents granted in the United States for speech technologies, according to a report from tech consulting firm iRunway, which points to significant strides in the development of the technology in the past 15 years.

According to iRunway's research, Microsoft, Nuance Communications, AT&T, IBM, and Google have led the industry in the number of patent filings, with the markets for virtual assistants, mobile technologies, and automotive systems seeing some of the most robust activity.

Of the speech recognition patents issued, 3,209 are related to the application of the technology in mobile devices. The report identifies AT&T, Nuance, Microsoft, IBM, and Google as the key patent holders in this space. Apple, it points out, does not have a large speech recognition patent portfolio and licenses most of its technology from Nuance, which powers its Siri virtual assistant.

The report also identified 648 patents that were applicable to automotive systems, which iRunway says is becoming a key applicant of speech recognition technology. And while car manufacturers used to rely on Nuance and Microsoft to implement speech recognition functionalities in their vehicles, Apple and Google have emerged as major players vying for a large share of the market with their CarPlay and Android Auto speech-controlled infotainment systems respectively. Many auto manufacturers have also begun developing these technologies on their own, with Denso, General Motors, and Honda leading the way.

iRunway points out, however, that much of the technology developed in mobile can be extended to cars, which is blurring the lines between the two industry segments.

The report also highlights the fact that at least 172 patents belonging to some of the leading technology providers are due to expire in 2016, bringing them into public domain. This, it says, "will likely prompt a new wave of development in the speech recognition domain with a dramatic impact on the application of this technology. This is likely to reduce licensing costs and make speech recognition technology more easily available to the larger market."

It already credits the virtual assistants, especially Apple's Siri, with demonstrating "the promise of a comfortable future with speech recognition and voice-enabled processes penetrating household and industrial applications."

Microsoft's Cortana, it adds, could have the most profound effects going forward, though. "Microsoft's Cortana, available in Windows 10 for mobile phones, tablets and, importantly, desktop units, may dramatically advance the virtual assistant experience, providing Microsoft with a significant edge over competitors," it says. "Unlike previous virtual assistants, Cortana is now tailored to local languages, customs, and cultures, and to the corresponding nuances of speech."

And that is only expected to increase as more companies experiment with applying natural language processing, linguistics and neural networking to the technology, building massive dictionaries of vocabulary, and deploying it in cloud-based architectures. Of those, "it appears that linguistics may be the key to reducing processing time and providing a more seamless user experience," the report concluded.

Overall, iRunway predicts that speech recognition will continue to be an area for growth in patents, particularly as the number of Internet-connected devices grows.

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