On the Scene: Voice Search and VoiceCon

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The Voice Search and VoiceCon conferences addressed the strengths and weaknesses of two still-developing technologies: new applications for voice search and unified communications. While the conferences presented a range of opinions about their respective technology segments’ futures, both urged innovation and improvement.

(Voice) Searching for Answers
At Voice Search, analysts and industry professionals agreed on the future of mobile technology, but they remain divided about the accuracy of speech recognition.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — While the term "voice search" refers to  searching for information by voice and audio mining technologies, the first Voice Search Conference in March centered primarily on the former. Sessions were devoted mostly to voice search as it relates to directory assistance, accessing customer information, and multimodality on mobile devices.

Mike Cohen, manager of Google’s Speech Technology Group, emphatically cautioned that voice should be used only in scenarios where the interface can most benefit users. "We mustn’t become too voice-centric," he said.

Analysts and vendors agree that directory assistance where voice search will be optimized. Michael Wehrs, Nuance Communications’ vice president of evangelism and industry affairs, believes that’s "where the masses will integrate." However, he emphasized that functionality is currently limited and automation rates need improvement. "But to come out today and say, ‘Everyone can have a personal concierge,’ we’re not there yet," he said.

Where vendors and analysts disagree is on obstacles to development of voice search applications, as it was evident that there is still uncertainty about the best user interface—such as ways users can narrow their search options by voice—and trepidation regarding the quality of speech recognition engines in general.

Mike Phillips, chief technology officer of Vlingo, demonstrated the voice search application Vlingo Find on his phone. A user holds a push-to-talk button and utters her request, which pops up on a text bar. If she wants to change search parameters, she highlights a single word and either speaks or types the modifications.

Phillips demonstrated the device in a large, echoing lobby, which negatively affected speech recognition quality. Of course most mobile communications occur in areas with plenty of background noise, but many don’t see that as a hurdle. Neal Bernstein, Microsoft’s senior director of local and mobile search, thinks recognition technology is good enough and that vendors should concern themselves with application design.

Others, like Google’s Cohen, took issue with the notion that speech recognition was adequate. "It’s good enough to bring value, but there’s a huge amount of room for improvement," he said. "There’s a lot more value you can bring to end users with improved speech technology. The quality of the underlying speech technology is one of the big bottlenecks." —Ryan Joe

Divided We Fall
Telephony and unified communications heavyweights gathered at VoiceCon, where the primary message was integration, interoperability, and partnerships.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Attendees at March’s VoiceCon learned they must work together to succeed. And not just in terms of partnerships or strategic alliances. Companies must integrate Internet Protocol (IP) telephony and unified communications (UC) to hit their strides. While the conference primarily addressed the UC industry’s landscape and recent developments, it also took a practical, honest approach to the technology.

"Today there’s still more rhetoric than reality," says Fred Knight, VoiceCon general manager and co-chair. "But based on the announcements that were made and what we have heard, the evolution of the concept is moving quickly."

As the conference’s first keynote speaker, Avaya president and CEO Louis D’Ambrosio noted the vital role of UC in catering to a remote worker base, stating that the solutions will "democratize" companies by tailoring systems to  specific workers or organizational goals.

Microsoft and IBM, however, used their floor time to announce new products and partnerships. Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s UC Group, said his company had invested in Aspect’s Unified IP contact center technology, and other technologies from Nortel. The partnership with Aspect gives agents access to UC products that can boost productivity and improve training. "Agents don’t have all the answers," says James Foy, Aspect’s president and CEO. "They go to individuals in an informal way that can’t be measured." The Aspect/Microsoft partnership would give Aspect customers the ability to track intra-organization communication using Microsoft’s OCS.

IBM announced plans to invest $1 billion in its UC products, allocating the cash toward partnerships with companies like ShoreTel, VBrick Systems, NEC, and Ericsson. In addition to traditional implementations of UC, Michael Rhodin, IBM’s general manager of workplace, portal, and collaboration software, said his company is completing a project for the U.S. government called "Babel Bridge." Taking elements from the computerized 3-D virtual world Second Life, the project allows end users to interact with one another virtually rather than by email or instant message.

Keynote speakers also addressed the role of videoconferencing. With products like Cisco’s Telepresence (which the company demonstrated), all agreed that, with the increase in remote workers and branch offices scattered around the globe, professionals will require new and cost-effective ways to conduct business without traveling. "Putting video in the hands of every information worker is how we will change and improve the market," Singh Pall noted.

Of course, the business case for UC and related products still remains somewhat half-formed. "The question is how much it will cost, the value proposition, ROI," Knight states. "Those are still being formulated." —Lauren Shopp

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