Voice 'Portals' Let Web Talk Back

A new phone service launched this week lets you speak commands to retrieve radio-like news, sports, business, and entertainment information. It's a hint of things to come, as mobile phones embrace both the Web and a safety-conscious hands-free approach.

Speech InfoNet uses Speech Pearl 99 recognition software from Philips Speech Processing, a division of the Dutch electronics giant Philips N.V. Preferred Voice makes the server-based hardware and software to process calls and access data. Choicecontent.com provides the content.

Preferred Voice is running a limited demo of Speech InfoNet (call +1-800-390-6478 and say "operator" or "demonstration" to get instructions by e-mail or fax). A natural-sounding voice asks you to state a category. The content takes 8 to 12 seconds to load (according to my brief tests), and consists of several news items read in radio broadcast style. The items are timely and well presented, although one report on Major League Baseball was repeated for a four-day period.

Information from Preferred Voice is similar to the general services listed in the front of most phone books, says Rick Stone, Preferred Voice's vice president of sales and marketing. It's the type of material that doesn't vary much, such as health tips, legal advice, or home maintenance ideas. Five small phone companies have signed deals to offer the package, and two more are testing it. Pricing will vary by phone company.

Talk Your Way Through the Web

Preferred Voice's Voice Integrated Platform (VIP) system can also control personal information. As a demonstration, Stone used VIP to enter my name and phone number by dictating them to his contact database. He then placed a call to my second line by saying my name; the phone rang within seconds.

"We want to deliver voice recognition to your home the same way you get call waiting," Stone says. "You could buy it from your home telephone or cell phone company for US$3 a month, for example."

Speech Pearl 99 powers other voice-activated telephony services, says Joseph Blankenship, a company spokesperson. Omnitel uses it for voice-activated calling in Italy, which mandates that mobile phones be hands-free.

"It's very, very new stuff, this idea of 'voice portals,' where you call up and navigate a menu using your voice," Blankenship says.

Philips chiefly competes with IBM, Nuance, and SpeechWorks in the nascent market of voice-controlled telephony services. You'll find such services at brokerage, telecom, and airline call centers. Several voice extensions to the Web's Extensible Markup Language are vying for dominance, according to Megan Gurley, research analyst at Yankee Group Inc.

Speech Infonet is "a great product for the initial phases," Gurley says. But its influence may be short-lived as more flexible forms of information retrieval take over.

"In six months, you'll talk to your phone, and in about a year, you'll talk to your car," Gurley predicts. "In the next two years, you're going to be able to talk to your house" and tell it, while you're driving home, to turn on the porch light.

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