Magazine article Information Today

Voice Search: 'Beam Me Up, Scotty' for Everyone

Magazine article Information Today

Voice Search: 'Beam Me Up, Scotty' for Everyone

Article excerpt

With the Klingons in hot pursuit, Captain James Kirk whipped out his communicator and issued voice instructions. As the Klingons moved within striking distance, Kirk calmly said, "Scotty, beam me up."

Before the Klingons could vaporize the prudent captain, Kirk flickered, turned into little sparkles, and materialized in the U.S.S. Enterprise starship's transporter room. Who had time to futz with a dollhouse-sized keyboard while a Klingon war party was advancing with malice?

What's not to like about talking to a mobile device or having voice communication available within any computing session or application? After watching a couple of Star Trek episodes in 1968, I knew that voice interaction was the Spock-logical way to interact with computers. Touch was not what I wanted to do. Voice was easy, convenient, and faster than pawing keys and performing gestures, and it was conversational. The problem was that in 1968, there were mainframes and no BlackBerries other than fruit, no Apples other than Beatle tunes, and no Googles other than an arcane math term.

The New Voice Interfaces

Today, voice interfaces are starting to shout. I can pop into an AT&T or any other mobile device store and buy a device that works similar to Captain Kirk's communicator. There's no "Beam me up," but there is "Find pizza," "Call home," and a clutch of other functions that no longer require finger-to-keypad acrobatics. This is progress after 42 years.

Companies such as Huawei (www.hua promote their voice technologies giving pride of place to voice search. This Shenzhen, China-based company is just one of dozens of companies pushing voice as the next big thing in human computer interaction. Half a world away, I can download a "free toolbar" from and "start searching the web" by using only my voice.

Googler Hugo Barra, a director of product management, said in August 2010, "Twenty five percent of those using Android 2.0 are already using voice search" ( future). Google executives pointed out that its voice search feature delivers 70% accuracy. As important are Google's increasingly aggressive steps to push its voice technology into its communications products. When I logged into my Gmail account in late August 2010, I discovered that I could initiate voice calls from that application. I asked myself, "Is this a Skype killer?" My vision is blurry, particularly when looking into the future. I do see the bright white line that Google is following. That arrow straight rule leads to voice ubiquity: actions, search, and conversational computing.

Better Search-to-Gadget Technology

We have been testing software that converts spoken words to text and to computer instructions for many years. The early systems were (in a word) horrible. Today, out of the box, the voice functions on the BlackBerry and Apple devices on my desk work reasonably well. There are three reasons for the improvement of speech-to-gadget technology: 1) Processors in a modern mobile device are capable of performing as well as some desktop computers did 2 or 3 years ago. Moore's Law has made computationally intense operations a commodity function in many devices; 2) engineers and scientists have found numerical recipes that eliminate the laborious training sessions some of the early speech recognition systems required; and 3) there are new methods that tap into databases of phonemes and then rely on advanced mathematical processes to pluck the "meaning" from the thicket of possibilities in milliseconds. The most forward-pushing methods combine on-phone capabilities with cloud-based resources. For most types of voice interactivity on today's smartphones, latency or delay is not an issue for most users.

The popular media focus attention on the voice search capabilities of companies such as Google and Apple. Google continues to make some remarkable voicedevice functions possible. …

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