Speech technology for applications inches forward

An early version of an emerging technology that will allow users to control software applications using the human voice was released to developers Wednesday.

A group led in part by Microsoft Corp. and Speechworks International Inc., known as the SALT Forum, short for Speech Application Language Tags, released the first public specification of its technology. When completed, the technology would allow developers to add speech "tags" to Web applications written in XML (Extensible Markup Language) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), allowing those applications to be controlled through voice commands rather than a mouse or a keyboard.

Other founding members of the SALT Forum include Cisco Systems Inc., Comverse Inc., Intel Corp. and Philips Electronics N.V. Nearly 20 other companies have announced support for the effort, according to information at the group's Web site.

Version 0.9 of the SALT Forum specification, which is available for download at http://www.saltforum.org/, includes early design details for how a developer would go about adding a speech interface to an application.

It also offers suggestions about how developers might consider using the technology to voice-enable Web applications, creating what are known as "multimodal" programs that can be controlled by both voice and traditional input methods. The SALT specification is also designed for applications that don't have a visual user interface, such as those accessed by telephone.

Microsoft said it plans to make use of SALT in three major product areas. It will release in May the beta version of an add-on tool for Visual Studio .Net that will allow developers to voice-enable applications. Those developers will also be provided with the test release of a voice-enabled version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser. Finally, by the end of the year the company plans to offer a SALT-compliant text-to-speech engine for its .Net initiative, said James Mastan, group product manager for Microsoft's .Net speech technologies group.

After collecting comments from developers who review the specification, the SALT Forum said it plans to submit the technology to a standards body for review. Microsoft, which hosted the launch of the SALT Forum in October at an event at its Mountain View, California, campus, has said it expects the specification to become an open standard that will be available on a royalty-free basis.

A rival effort is under way to develop a standard for speech interfaces based on a technology called VoiceXML. That effort is led by a group of companies including IBM Corp., Motorola Inc., AT&T Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc. First announced in early 1999, VoiceXML originally was designed to allow applications to be accessed by telephone. Efforts are under way to add the capability to voice-enable applications that are accessed using the Web.

The VoiceXML effort is under review by the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), an international standards body, and is expected to be discussed when the W3C meets next week in Cannes, France. Microsoft said it expects the early SALT specification also to make an appearance at that meeting.

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