New technology lets you read your voice mail

Several companies are betting on voice-recognition applications that transcribe those rambling messages into e-mail or text messages.
Written by Marguerite Reardon, Contributor
Why listen to your voice mail messages when you can read them? That's what a new crop of companies is asking--they're developing software that turns voice mail messages into transcribed e-mail or text messages.

We've all gotten those long voice mail messages from a friend, relative, business associate--or in this reporter's case a PR person pitching a story idea--that seem to drag on forever. New companies, such as Simulscribe, SpinVox and now Callwave, are emerging to provide a fix for busy people who don't want to listen to long messages anymore.

Even though cell phones are increasingly being used to do everything from sending text messages to surfing the Web to playing music, the main reason to use a phone is voice communication. New applications, such as voice-to-text, could be part of a growing trend of new services based on voice-recognition technology.

One indication that voice-recognition technology is getting hot is the recent Microsoft/Tellme deal. In March, Microsoft said it would buy privately held speech-recognition maker Tellme Networks in a deal believed to be in the range of $800 million. Tellme recently started testing a cell phone application that allows people to say out loud the information they are looking for and have data sent to their phone.

"Voice is still the killer application for any phone," said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "And it is underappreciated as an opportunity and underutilized for development of new services. Carriers can use voice applications to drive data-oriented experiences."

Been there, done that

Voice-recognition technology is not new. Most high-end mobile phones today offer some kind of voice interface that allows people to say commands, such as "Call Maggie on cell" or "Connect Bluetooth wireless headset." But Golvin said the biggest problem with these phones is that they require some kind of training so that the device recognizes the user's voice making a command. Essentially, for each command a user wants to use, he has to record himself giving that command.

To get around this issue, mobile operators, such as Sprint Nextel and AT&T's Cingular Wireless, offer network-based voice-activated services that allow users to upload their contact lists to a server that allows them to speak the name of contacts they want to call. No device training or prerecording is necessary. Users simply punch in *1 or some other code on the keypad to reach the application, and then they can say the name of whomever they want to call.

But Golvin said these services face two problems. First, uploading contacts can be difficult and cumbersome. And second, carriers charge about $5 per month for the service, a steep price for someone who is also being targeted to pay an additional $15 to $20 a month to subscribe to a mobile data package.

"While it sounds like a great service, the reality is that it's hard to get it to work," he said. "And I think because it's sold as an added service, the price tag isn't appealing to a lot of people."

Reading voice mail

The voice-to-text services emerging on the market take voice recognition in a different direction to solve a very real problem for people who are inundated with voice mail messages.

Instead of having to sit through a three-minute voice mail message from your sister, services like SimulScribe and SpinVox allow you to get to the heart of that message by reading it in an SMS text message or e-mail. The message simply pops up in your e-mail or text in-box within two to five minutes after the voice mail has been left.

Every word of the conversation appears in the text or e-mail message. This means that if your sister left a phone number for you to call or the address of a place to meet, you don't have to rifle through your purse or backpack, looking for a pen to write it down. It's already there for you. Getting a transcribed message also makes it easy to prioritize messages and see who needs to be called back right away.

SimulScribe also allows users to save and listen to messages as a voice mail or a .wav file in an e-mail inbox. The company is already providing its voice to text service to Skype users. And it's expected to announce a deal to provide the service to Vonage customers later this year.

SpinVox, which offers a similar service in Europe, announced recently that Cincinnati Bell will offer its Voice-to-Screen service that provides transcribed voice mail messages via SMS text messages and e-mail.

Last week, the company also announced a new mobile blogging service it calls Spin-my-Blog, which allows bloggers to instantly post spoken blog entries from anywhere. By simply using any phone to call a designated Spin-my-Blog phone number, bloggers are automatically connected to their blogs and their spoken entries are converted to text and posted on their blog sites live.

A company called CallWave also announced its voice-to-text service last week. Unlike SpinVox and SimulScribe, which provide direct transcriptions of voice-mail messages, CallWave only provides the gist of messages.

While analysts agree that a new wave of voice-recognition services is coming on the scene, some say the technology and business cases are still evolving. For one, accuracy of transcribed messages can still be an issue in some instances, said Roger Entner, a telecommunications analyst at Ovum Research.

"Voice recognition and transcription technology is finally working in an acceptable fashion," he said. "But when you have background noise, the quality definitely goes down."

Jill Aldort, a senior analyst with Yankee Group, said that with all the other services carriers are trying to sell customers, it might be hard to convince people to pony up the extra cash to use the voice-to-text service. For example, SimulScribe costs $9.95 a month. The first 40 messages are included in this price, but after that, the company charges 25 cents per message.

That said, she agrees that voice recognition services are going to be hot, especially services like the one offered by Tellme, which can help people find information on the fly.

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