Allowing the Web to be Heard

FRAMINGHAM (04/19/2000) - Stardate 20000424.6Captain Kirk: "Computer. Scan all relevant data for this quadrant and plot a course to the nearest Class M planet with a Starbucks coffee store."

Computer: "Scanning . . . course plotted. ETA 1.13 solar days at standard warp speed."

Mr. Spock: "Fascinating."

Captain Kirk: "Maximum warp, Mr. Sulu."

The real world is finally catching up with Hollywood.

A growing number of vendors are introducing software to let people talk to information sources, including the Web. The software listens to a voice command, converts it into a database query or HTML request and speaks the results back to the caller.

For now, users of this technology are limited to wired or wireless telephones.

What's missing is a class of hands-free devices that can handle two-way voice interaction while displaying information on a larger screen used by today's personal digital assistants, such as the Palm V.

Accessing the Web by voice is the newest wrinkle in voice network technology.

Lucent Technologies Inc. in Murray Hill, New Jersey, is testing what it calls a phone browser, which lets callers navigate a Web page and access links.

More common is the growing use of existing voice technology to let callers such as customers and employees access information in corporate databases.

United Airlines Inc., for example, uses software from SpeechWorks International in Boston to let passengers call for flight information and report and track lost baggage. A separate voice system lets United employees book their own seats on the airline's flights. In each case, the data is pulled from United's mainframe systems and converted into speech.

"Voice portals" have begun mushrooming around the country. Consumers call a toll-free number and follow a series of voice prompts to get information such as local weather reports, directions to restaurants and stock quotes.

BellSouth and a Reston, Virginia, start-up called AudioPoint separately offer free, consumer-oriented voice portals based on SpeechWorks software. Neither is truly Web-based at this point - users access a selected batch of news and information feeds at the voice site.

But as the emerging Voice Markup Language becomes an accepted standard and is more widely used by developers, sites such as AudioPoint will open up to a broader array of Web-based information services, according to Nick Unger, CEO of AudioPoint.

Early this month, AudioPoint Inc. created a Web site ( that lets users configure their voice portal account. When a user calls 1-888-38AUDIO, the voice portal will tailor stock reports, sports scores and other information to the user's profile.

These kinds of voice systems typically need complex middleware, such as message queuing or transaction monitoring software, to work with back-end legacy databases.

That's one reason for the appeal of the "voice Web" - you're accessing information that's kept in HTML documents on a Web site. The Lucent phone browser does this by using two additional pieces of software - one to filter out visual elements, the second to deconstruct the Web page so it can be converted to speech. SpeechWorks has a voice browser in development.

"Right now, the so-called voice browser complements the use of a PC-based Internet browser - it's not replacing the graphical browser," says Elizabeth Herrell, a senior industry analyst with Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, research firm.

Voice browsers offer limited menu choices, and they can't access all the links on a Web page, Herrell notes.

"But the convenience of being able to access some kinds of information quickly will make a strong market for this software," she predicts.

AudioPoint:; Lucent:; SpeechWorks:

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