Voice over wireless starts to connect

As cell phones become major conduits for wireless data applications, users and Web consultants are urging vendors to build voice recognition into their offerings.

As cell phones become major conduits for wireless data applications, users and Web consultants are urging vendors to build voice recognition into their offerings. Vendors are starting to get the message.

"It's hellishly difficult entering data on the phone," said Richard Barnwell, CTO (chief technology officer) of Zefer Inc., a Web integration company in Boston that helps companies take their e-business wireless. "The buzz starting later this year will be more about voice-based systems, voice interfaces and VoiceXML [Extensible Markup Language] technology."

To help matters, vendors such as Motorola Inc., Oracle Corp. and IBM are working on voice platforms that will integrate with the wireless Web.

Motorola, of Schaumburg, Ill., and Oracle, of Redwood Shores, Calif., last week introduced a reference blueprint designed to help their customers - developers, carriers and service providers - create wireless business applications.

The first step on the road map is to enable the integration of Oracle's 9i Application Server Wireless Edition with Motorola's Wireless Application Protocol and Voice Server.

IBM, meanwhile, is bringing voice technology to its WebSphere e-business platform. The company offers voice server software that includes a VoiceXML engine and various text-to-speech engines. Officials in West Palm Beach, Fla., said customers are interested in voice technology, and beta trials are indicative of services that should be widespread in the next couple of years.

For example, T. Rowe Price Associates is testing a statistical-based natural language system in a pilot program that lets customers access their financial information by telling a computer what they want.

The technology lets customers speak entire phrases into the phone, and the computer predicts the direction the conversation will go, which makes it less likely that a customer has to go through a "directed dialogue" menu.

It will be a few years before this technology is perfected and widespread, though, IBM officials said.

At this point, "people want to be guided through the process more than they want to guess how to formulate a sentence so the computer will recognize it," said Darren Wesemann, CTO of Talk2 Technology Inc., a voice application company in Salt Lake City. The company's software provides voice access to e-mail and calendar information. Officials said carriers plan to roll out the service next year.

Wireless applications promise to eventually support both voice and data. For instance, a customer could call an airline and ask questions about a flight but receive the flight information in the form of data on their cell phone screen.

Wireless networks in the United States do not yet support voice and data at the same time. There are some voice/data applications popping up in Europe, but these entail making a request by voice, hanging up and then waiting for a Short Message Service data transmission.

All talk

Challenges still facing Internet voice technology:

  • Solutions use directed dialogue rather than natural language
  • Wireless network protocols in the United States cannot support voice and data at the same time
  • Automated language translation has not yet been perfected