Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) beefed up its push to be the dominant force in voice and language recognition by agreeing to buy long-term rival Dragon Systems. The deal, coming on top of a recent agreement to purchase Dictaphone, should help the Belgian companys efforts to put these technologies into the computing mainstream.
The acquisition provides L&H with about 350 new staff, half of whom work in research and development. L&H said the extra capacity will accelerate its drive into new areas. One such area is mobile devices in cars, where screen size and input device restrictions pose problems for traditional user interface designs. L&H software on a smartphone could translate voice-driven Web searches and read out or display data in a choice of languages.
"Its very difficult to browse the Internet with a half-inch display and a keypad. Also, in a car you dont want to have to take your eyes off the road," said Jo Lernout, co-chairman.
Voice and text recognition are also useful in call centres or for dictation, especially in the legal and healthcare sectors. L&H said the extra R&D resources would speed the arrival of its NAK handheld device, which uses a continuous speech dictation engine and text-to-speech capability to send and receive email, surf the Web and support e-commerce transactions.
"Two things help make a computer understand voice, talk or translate," said Lernout. "One is people who have been in the field for many years; and two, massive amounts of data."
L&H faces intense competition from rivals such as IBM and Philips, but has the backing of Microsoft, which has a $60m (£37.8m)stake in L&H.
Bill Gates, now chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft, is a keen supporter of voice and last month demonstrated Microsofts MiPad prototype. This has a 'Dr Who' user interface offering voice recognition, voice commands and pen input. Intelligent Interface Technologies, a spin-off of Microsoft Research, is also working on voice interfaces for future versions of Microsoft Office.