Technology and Mobile Patrol

By Dees, Tim | Law & Order, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Technology and Mobile Patrol

Dees, Tim, Law & Order

Speech recognition technology represents what may be the next major advance in the way that humans interact with computers, the last being the use of the graphical user interface with a pointing device, such as a mouse, trackball or touchpad.

Computers prior to the introduction of the Apple Macintosh and Windows environments used only keyboards to input commands and data, but now even palmtop computers have some type of pointing device as a part of their standard configuration. Corel, the manufacturer of WordPerfect software, has already included speech recognition as a part of their basic package, and Microsoft will probably include a limited speech interface in the next generation of Windows.

Law enforcement applications haven't yet benefited from this technology, mainly because the software wasn't reliable enough for critical applications. But advances in speech recognition have caused one company to introduce a speech interface for one of the most obvious applications -- mobile data terminals.

Agencies with computers in their patrol cars usually see two immediate results: officers make greater use of online databases and run more inquires, resulting in increased arrests and stolen vehicle recoveries, and the number of officer-involved vehicle accidents increases. This latter phenomenon occurs when officers either run inquiries or try to read displays while driving, taking their eyes off the road, with the inevitable result.

Data Agents, Inc. has a speech interface for mobile computers called Vira Voca(TM), that allows officers to run inquiries and receive replies through a voice-only interface. The officer's eyes never need leave the road or suspect until detailed information has to be read and digested. Because most critical information from mobile inquiries is of a "wants/no wants" variety, a simple voice prompt tells the officer what he needs to know to plan his next tactical step, whether to call for backup, set up for a felony stop or just resume patrol.

The package has been field-tested with a number of microphone/earphone combinations. The most popular choice among field testers has been a combination boom microphone and earphone that wraps around the ear and comes off easily and quickly. The headset includes a small antenna for transmitting the voice input to the computer, and can be removed very quickly to exit the car. Officers who have used this headset report that putting it on and taking if off becomes second nature after a few days, and is less obtrusive than a seatbelt. If the headset is damaged, it can be replaced for less than $20.

Field testing in Gloucester County, Virginia demonstrated that the voice interface allows a dramatic increase in the number of license plate inquiries that can be run by an officer while on patrol, from around 20 to 300 or more an hour. Because the information requests go directly to the computer, instead of through a dispatcher, most requests are responded to within 10 seconds.

Vira Voca(TM) software comes in four packages, depending on which features are needed or desired. Vira Bronze(TM) allows officers to give verbal commands to their onboard computers and to make speech-- based inquiries. Both an audible and visual alert and a voice message indicate that the waiting reply is urgent.

Vira Silver(TM) includes the features of the Bronze product plus "Plate-Stacker," which allows officers to run lists of license plates in batches. "Talk-Back," gives a more specific voice alert, depending on the nature of the incoming message "You have a dispatch," or "You have a wanted felon announcement"). Vira Silver(TM) also allows the officer to carry his voice files to another vehicle and computer without having to re-enroll and re-train the software.

Vira Gold(TM) (planned for Q2 1999) includes the features of the Bronze and Silver packages, and adds e-mail, carto-car communication, conferencing, and conversion of NCIC data into spoken word packets.

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