A Tale of Two Conferences

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In the second half of 2007 I attended two major speech technology conferences, SpeechTEK 2007 in August and Voice Days 2007 in October, so the speech community has been on my mind. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that my thoughts on both conferences are colored by having served as a SpeechTEK co-chair for the first time last year. Although many of you have already shared your impressions of SpeechTEK with me, I hope this column will inspire more of you to contact me with critiques, suggestions, and questions for 2008.

I was struck by the sea change in attitudes at SpeechTEK. Not that long ago, the speech industry spent a huge amount of time and energy simply justifying its existence. This led to an "us-versus-them" mentality in which speech was pitted in battles—real and imagined—against dual-tone, multifrequency (DTMF) and Web applications. Return on investment reigned supreme as an argument in favor of speech, coupled with the claim that interacting via speech technology was natural in a way that DTMF and the Web were not.

This competitive atmosphere meant that most speech vendors were unwilling to share their industry knowledge for fear of losing their advantage, and the only consumer case studies we heard reported complete success. All of this limited how quickly we could learn and mature. When you only have your own experiences to work from, growth can be sporadic and uncertain, and the industry as a whole matured more slowly because we all made the same mistakes in parallel.

Coming of Age
The theme of SpeechTEK 2007, "Speech at the Tipping Point," paid homage to keynote speaker Malcolm Gladwell,  author of The Tipping Point. The idea also referenced the current era in the speech industry. Rather than pitting speech against other technologies, we heard many instances of organizations envisioning speech as one medium in an overall customer communication strategy used in concert with DTMF, Web, and visual display technologies.
Speech is now viewed as an opportunity to improve the customer experience by making self-service tasks efficient and comfortable, but organizations are also acknowledging that interacting with speech-enabled systems is far from natural for most people. Overall, the attitudes expressed seemed more mature and less territorial.

Soon after SpeechTEK I received a notice for the Voice Days 2007 conference in Bonn, Germany. My colleague, Tom Houwing, had been nudging me for years to attend;  reading over the English translation of the program, I understood why. I was impressed with the presentation schedule, the beautifully produced program, and the excellent location (the former West German Parliament building, the Alter Bundestag). With help from Tom, the Voice Days organizers, and Information Today (the publisher of Speech Technology magazine), I attended the conference and shared my impressions of SpeechTEK 2007 with the European audience. It was a great opportunity to learn about the speech industry in Europe.

Much of what I observed at Voice Days was familiar: many of the speech companies represented were ones I know from the United States, and the issues facing the European community were like those we see in the U.S. I was pleased to hear about novel approaches to our common problems and meet people eager to form connections with their U.S. peers. The thing that most impressed me at Voice Days was the awards ceremony, during which the best European speech systems were announced. The judges explained why each winning system was chosen and an audio clip of each winner was played for the audience. This made the awards ceremony a true learning experience and established a new benchmark for quality throughout the community.

Overall, I left Voice Days believing that the speech communities in the U.S. and Europe have much in common, and that the SpeechTEK and Voice Days conferences serve similar purposes for our communities. A similar set of factors seem to drive speech vendors and consumers in the U.S. and Europe—providing effective, efficient, and pleasing speech automation to improve the customer experience, reduce operational costs, and provide 24/7 access to data and transactions for customers. I attribute the differences between our two communities to differences in the relative importance of these shared factors rather than to differences in substance. In spite of all we share, VUI designers in the U.S. and Europe certainly have much to learn from one another and we hope to continue the cooperation between SpeechTEK and Voice Days in the future to help make this happen.

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is founder and principal at Speech Usability, a VUI design consultancy firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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