Voice and the Mobile Consumer

SAN FRANCISCO —"What was the first thing you ever typed into a computer?" asked Mike McCue on Thursday during his SpeechTEK West 2007 keynote address, Bringing Voice to the Mobile Consumer. McCue, chief executive officer and founder of Tellme Networks, recalls his first computer keystroke experience: He was in 10th grade, sitting in his high school computer lab. It was 1983. He typed, "Can you talk?" The computer unapologetically responded "INCORRECT STATEMENT."

His interest in speech technology at such an early age proved beneficial to his company today. Tellme Networks is an open standards telephone platform provider that enables telephones, through the use of voice commands, to communicate with computers to fetch Internet data. Clearly, the speech technology industry has come a long way since McCue's high school days. "Today's phone has a 130-megahertz processor, 4 megabytes of RAM, and 1 gigabyte of storage. Apple's iPhone will have 4 or 8 gigabytes of storage. That's just crying out for a speech interface," he said.

Now that consumer mobile hardware is robust enough to handle speech applications and mobile cell phone usage is growing exponentially, McCue expects to see three major trends: the increased usage of speech as a service, voice plus visual, and find and transact capabilities.

"Speech should be provided as a network service," McCue said. Tellme Networks, founded in 1999, does exactly this. The company's platform handles business search on 411 (nearly 35 percent of all 411 calls in the United States), information search on 1-800-555-TELL, and customer service and ordering for companies such as Merrill Lynch, E*TRADE, and American Airlines. In the network service model, similar to utility bills, company costs fluctuate with usage. "If you have call traffic that increases or decreases you only pay for what you use," McCue said. All the while, he added that companies get carrier grade security, reliability, and burstability (the ability to handle sudden bursts in call volumes).

The next major trend, according to McCue, will be developments in technologies that drive voice plus visual capabilities. For example, a Cardinals baseball fan could press a button on his cell phone and say "Cardinals" and get a visual display of the Cardinals' score. Or, someone can say "hardware" and get a list of all hardware stores in the area and a map to the desired store. This capability is currently available on Motorola's MOTOSLVR and MOTORAZR cell phones. "Voice and visual will really put speech recognition into a whole new realm," he said. McCue added that it will take time for handset makers and carriers to standardize their equipment for mass consumption, "but [the technology is] becoming faster, more open, and more standardized."

The third trend, find and transact, will enable people to conduct research over their phones. "When you're on the phone it's not good enough to just get a listing. You need to get the task done. That's going to be an important trend moving forward," he said. For example, find and transact capabilities enable consumers to find a specific movie, learn where it's playing and show times, and purchase tickets.

Thanks to the efforts of people like McCue, some day he'll be able to ask his computer, "Can you talk? And, it will say, Yes, Mike. What do you want to do? We're getting closer to that day," he said.

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