Text messages get speech treatment

BT is the latest company to try and widen the scope of SMS by turning text messages into audio, and is claiming the application could have business benefits

BT has created a service, which it hopes will appeal to both businesses and consumers, that converts SMS messages into speech.

The "synthetic speech conversation" application will allow text messages to be turned into audio and sent to fixed line phones. As well as converting words from text to speech, BT says the product -- which includes the voice of a "synthesised lady" -- can also cope with smileys and laugh when appropriate.

The ability to include musical jingles in a message will be included as part of a future upgrade. The technology is still at a trial stage, and BT says it is in negotiations with several mobile operators over a commercial deployment.

Similar products have been under development for some time, with Deutsche Telecom launching an SMS-to-voice service in July 2001. But such services have limited penetration in the UK at present.

"SMS is now a major telecommunications service and has become a very useful and positive part of many people's lives," said Paul Reynolds, chief executive of BT Wholesale, in a statement. "Extending it to fixed lines through the imaginative use of text-to-voice technology will make it a much more flexible and fun service for business and personal users."

BT envisions that a converted SMS message could be sent directly to a recipient's voicemail or delivered immediately as a normal call. The application could appeal to businesses as a reliable way of transmitting an important message, because a fixed line is hardly ever turned off -- unlike a PC or a mobile. It could also be used in business situations where a contact doesn't have a corporate mobile phone. In this way, a text could be sent to a work landline rather than to a personal mobile, which might not be appropriate.

"The launch date is subject to successful trial," said Andy Jugg, head of product management, messaging, mobility & applications at BT Wholesale. "If all goes well, then it will be weeks rather than months."