Microsoft subsidiary, Tellme® Networks Inc., recently announced a mobile voice service that combines content and communications, supposedly simplifying how people interact with their phones every day. Apple’s latest iPhone 3GS also boasts a voice activation feature, something that’s been around in mobile devices for years.  But who, if anyone, makes use of these brilliant features? It makes brilliant sense to be able to bark orders into a handset and have the functions magically work.   In reality, however, it is quite a different story.

Voice recognition technology has been slowly improving over the years but for early adopters the experience was so horrific it scared them off for life.  Anyone with any sort of ‘foreign’ accent was doomed and standup comics were quick to seize the humorous side by imitating calls to customer care systems that were fully automated by voice.  ‘A four seasons pizza’ came out as ‘four pizzas with extra anchovies’ and ‘open my savings bank account’ triggered ‘bank opening hours are 10 to 5, Monday to Friday’.  Of course, these are examples of server-side voice activation services which rely heavily on clear communications links between the user and the system.  A lousy or marginal voice connection, poor handset technology or a device with a moisture affected microphone could play havoc with the results.

More common are voice activation features built into handset operating systems.  How cool it was to say ‘call Bill’ and have Bill’s number magically dialed.  Sadly, it used to take fifteen minutes to ‘train’ the handset for each person in the directory.  If the voice activation was left on battery life was drastically diminished and all too often accidental, and often embarrassing, calls would be placed without the knowledge of the user.  The strangest results invariably occurred whilst driving and calling out at other less than courteous drivers.

Tellme claims that unlike other voice-based services, it is the first to allow people to press one button, say what they want and get it, whether that is to send a text, make a call or search for information.  Tellme has designed a unique version of this experience specifically for Windows® phones due out sometime later this year.

The new service claims to put many of the most popular phone functions behind a single button. Windows® phone users need only press the side button of their phone to do the following:

  • Send a text by saying “text” to open a text box, then speak the text message and say “send” to send it to anyone in their contact list
  • Initiate a call simply by saying “call” and then the name of anyone in their contact list
  • Search the Web with Microsoft Live Search by speaking your request, such as “weather in San Francisco, California,” “pizza in Kansas City,” “movies” or “Mother’s Day gift ideas”

Sound familiar?  Convinced?  Hardly, so why aren’t we all rushing out to embrace voice technology.  Tellme claims that it requires four touches and more than twenty keystrokes to find a business with the Apple iPhone, while it only takes one button push and one verbal command to find the same business with Tellme.   Interesting they used an iPhone for the analogy and probably before Apple’s announcement of its own voice activation features.

Other vendors claim that voice activation is more secure than passwords, PINs, etc because recognition systems are now so sophisticated they can determine speech patterns particular to a user.  If that’s the case why haven’t banks introduced this service, come to think of it, most won’t even allow custimers to do banking via their mobile phones because it is a security risk compared to internet access.  Go figure!

In a recent study conducted by Sanderson Studios Inc., more than 70 percent of US respondents said that voice is superior to keypad or touch-based methods to perform some of the most popular mobile tasks. But what percentage actually make use of voice services?

The writer’s last experience with voice activation has left him deeply scarred and unlikely to ever attempt its use again.  In a Super Shuttle headed for Dallas-Fort Worth Airport he asked the driver if he knew the terminal his flight would be departing from.  ‘No’, came the answer, ‘but if you dial this number and follow the voice directions and speak out the airline and flight number it will give you the terminal’.  Easy, yes – effective, no.  It seems that unless one has a broad American accent, preferably with a Texan drawl, the system simply fails to respond.  Much to the humor of the other six passengers all attempts to get a terminal number with an Australian accent failed and  even a ludicrous attempt at faking George W’s voice and selective use of expletives ended in tears.  God may well bless America, but it’s voice recognition systems may not be so lucky!