People have been working on the development of voice recognition software for the past 30 years but only fairly recently has the technology reached a point where it can be more widely used, writes Ross Bentley.
"The underlying technology has come on in leaps and bounds in the past few years," says Paul Barnes, chief executive at Fluency Voice Technologies, a UK voice recognition specialist.
"Specifically, the technology now has the ability to understand regional accents and to react with speed," he says.
"There has been a lot of work done with phonemes, which are the building blocks for voice recognition.
"Once the technology reaches the point where it can be used commercially, this acts as an incentive to develop the technology even further."
According to Barnes there are three areas where voice recognition is already having an impact. "It is being used extensively in call centres and for virtual personal assistants," he says. Virtual PAs enable people to remotely dictate memos, access e-mails, arrange conference calls and "do all the stuff you can do with Outlook using voice commands".
"Telematics is another area which we are seeing come alive. This is voice-activated functionality within the car, where the driver needs to do things hands-free, such as route planning and making phone calls.
"We are also looking at adapting these systems for boat operators, while Nasa is looking at incorporating the technology into the space shuttle," says Barnes.
Microsoft is pushing the development of voice recognition with Salt - speech application language tags. It says that Salt is a more viable alternative to voice XML.
"Microsoft is saying that it plans to prove that anything you can do with a keyboard, you should be able to do using voice recognition," says Barnes, but he sees many other uses for voice recognition software over the next few years.
"If, for example, you go on a spending blitz with your credit card it may be seen as out of the ordinary and set off an alert at the credit card company," he says. Unusual changes in spending behaviour help credit card companies to spot fraud.
This alert would activate a phone call to the card holder, where a computerised voice would ask for verification of the amount spent. "If there is a problem the call can be patched through to an operator at a call centre," says Barnes.
"This is one of the first proactive uses of voice recognition where the software actually initiates a call.
"In tests we have found that most people don't mind being called by a computer if the call is effective and doesn't waste time."
Barnes says translation software is an area where there has been real improvement. "Translation functionality pushes the technology to its limits.
"While there's nothing out there that really works as a broad translation module because there are so many things you can say, translation software does work when applied to niche areas."
Fluency recently took part in a project funded by the Japanese government to provide a specialist translator to translate medical questions from Japanese to English and vice versa for Japanese doctors.
"Translation software was able to work here because of the limited number of words used," says Barnes.
"There is a limit to the amount of phrases needed, it is tight and defined, such as, 'Do you have a headache; do you have palpitations?' - things critical to diagnosis."
This was first published in August 2002