Can Speech Recognition Find Its Voice in Computing?

[qi:006] Microsoft once again is touting its speech-recognition technology, predicting on its site this week that “talking to a computer may soon be as natural as using a mouse.” But while voice is a natural fit for mobile phones and some other platforms, when it comes to traditional computing — using a laptop, desktop or even a netbook — the use-case scenarios for speech recognition are more limited. It will take quite an effort to convince users to talk to their laptops instead of typing on them.

The mouse has nearly become an extra appendage for many of us; touchpads and touchscreens are simple and intuitive; and larger screens minimize the need to drill down through menus. The use of voice as a navigational tool will increase as smartphone usage continues to ramp up, and it will likely be used in specific situations on smaller devices like netbooks — when a user’s hands are otherwise occupied, for instance, or in rare on-the-go scenarios. For traditional computers and laptops, though, I don’t see it gaining much traction among mainstream consumers.

Don’t get me wrong: Speech-recognition software has come a long way in the last few years. Once prohibitively error-prone and inconsistent, the technology now is the foundation of impressive offerings from players such as MacSpeech, Nuance and Vlingo. Microsoft seems especially well-positioned in the space. The company picked up startup Tellme in a 2007 deal reportedly worth more than $800 million, and it is wisely using cloud-based technology to build a system that leverages an enormous amount of data to determine what users are saying.

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The Redmond gang has helped push speech recognition into the mainstream with Ford Sync, the in-dash recognition and search system it powers. And Microsoft is aggressively rolling out voice functionality across its offerings including Bing for Mobile, Exchange Server 2010, Windows 7 and Windows Mobile.

Voice is a natural fit for drivers whose hands are busy and whose eyes are on the road. It also will be absolutely crucial in mobile (GigaOM Pro, sub. required), where small keypads and screens make touch navigation difficult — or, if you’re behind the wheel, dangerous. And consumers are likely to love features like Microsoft’s Voice Mail Preview, which uses speech-to-text to deliver voicemail information to a user’s inbox.

Use of speech-recognition offerings should ramp up in the next few years as phones continue to grow more sophisticated. When it comes to usage on desktops and laptops, though, any real uptake is a long way off — if it happens at all.

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