Voice recognition seems to have been left behind recently as we surf the Internet, clicking our mice at anything that moves or doesn't move. This predominance of the ocular-centric interface design may be about to be challenged. Nuance, an American leader in natural-speech interface software for telecommunication, enterprise and web-based systems, has just produced Voyager. Voyager is something quite new - a 'voice browser' that fundamentally changes the way people use the telephone to communicate, access information and conduct business. Nuance claims that Voyager will enhance the capabilities of the telephone network in the same way web browsers widened the appeal of the Internet.
With Voyager, people can place phone calls and reach speech applications or 'voice sites' on a network called the Voice Web. Voyager's voice interface provides a consistent way to navigate the Voice Web with spoken hyperlinks, or 'voice links', and easy-to-remember commands. In addition, Voyager's personalisation capabilities make the telephone more convenient by streamlining access to favourite phone numbers and voice sites. Voyager verifies users by voice print, so security should be assured.
Very shortly it is conceivable that the World Wide Web could be paralleled by the Voice Web. What information will be stored in what form and what is the ideal interface for different types of data?
Computer journalist Harry Crane answers this question with a slightly surreal, yet day-to-day, example: 'Voice requests are quick: 'Tell me all the pizza parlours in London which have waitresses called Helena Bonham Carter and wood-fired ovens.' The list of options might be depressingly short in this example. But if you asked for all the Helena Bonham Carter fansites, it'd be a bind to hear it ploddingly read out by an electronic voice. Screen output would be easier to absorb.'
So it can be seen that information is delivered in various optimum ways dependent on that information, but also related to whatever context it is being delivered within. For example, if one is in the gym on a stepper machine then any data might be better delivered verbally.
More than 25 leading telecommunications and Internet companies have agreed to work with Nuance and its Voyager product, including British Telecom, BroadVision, Cisco Systems, Intel, Motorola, Oracle and Sun Microsystems.
'Nuance's Voyager is a ground-breaking concept that will have significant impact in the industry,' says Jeremy Stafford, general manager of Voice Solutions for bt. 'It fits with British Telecom's vision, and can become the basis for providing information and services through natural-language speech technology. During the next year we plan to work with Nuance in the development, testing and deployment of Voyager-based capabilities for our customers who are looking for competitive advantage in e-commerce applications.'
In conjunction with Voyager, Nuance has also created 'V-Builder', a tool that allows users to build voice-interfaces quickly to Internet sites and speech applications that can be accessed through the Voyager browser.
There is a lot of talk about the so-called 'Thousand Dollars Club' membership fee to the Internet (the cost of hardware and software for web access). Systems like Voyager could be the start of a 'democratisation' of the Internet. Maybe my mother would be able to use it then, or at least be able to understand what the Web is.
Systems such as Voyager could have considerable impact on the architectural profession. A prosaic example is that some of the cad/cam design information kept in screen-based visual format would become accessible from remote sites without the need for the cumbersome pc on the site-hut table or the lap-top with mobile-phone link that does not work in Scotland. Voyager is probably the first of many generations of speech-recognition voice-ware. It is another step in a rapidly evolving continuum that is liberating the architect. Its voice interface brings closer the ability of architects to create environments that skip between the real and the virtual, presenting information, space and form in various simultaneous configurations.
In the meantime, it is business as usual, with commerce first and spatial pyrotechnics last. Voice-enabled content and commerce e-businesses will be able to extend dramatically the reach of their products and services by using Voyager. For web-based companies, Voyager offers a new way to serve and do business with the owners of more than two billion telephones world-wide, an audience that is 10 times greater than those connected to the Internet. Maybe the riba should insist we get 'voiced up'
For more information about Voyager and voice recognition Internet browsing, Nuance's website at www.nuance.com.