Look Ma, I’m Texting With No Hands!

StartTalking for Android is a free app that focuses on keeping a driver’s eyes and attention on the road while still receiving or sending text messages. I see value not just for drivers, 25 percent of which admit texting while driving, but for the visually impaired as well. AdelaVoice, a startup founded in January of this year, just launched the StartTalking app, which creates and sends text messages to contacts as you speak and also reads incoming messages aloud without requiring any button presses or even a look at the screen.

I took an early look at a beta version of StartTalking on my Nexus One, and the app works as advertised. There’s no need to look at your handset or touch a button to get texting. In my trials, the speech recognition rivals similar products I’ve used from Google (s goog and Nuance (s nuan); the accuracy is quite good. That’s not surprising, because the dictation leverages Google’s own network-based speech recognition, although some functions, such as attention and commands, are handled locally by the software.

The main draw of StartTalking is that it runs in the background and listens for a voice command keyword; the default is “operator.” There’s no need to look at or touch your handset to use the software, which is a key differentiator. Once you speak the keyword, you do what the name of the app implies: start talking. Although my testing time was limited, I’ve been told by the developers that the app only hits the phone battery at a rate of 4 percent per hour.

When I first heard about StartTalking, a potential red flag waved because I saw that users had to pre-configure which contacts the software would work with. In my mind, that’s a potential ease-of-use barrier that could hurt adoption. I shared my concern with AdelaVoice’s CEO, Christopher Hassett, who explained the rationale:

The reason we ask the user to go through this “activation” of contacts stems from a significant amount of testing on phones that have a small number of contacts (perhaps 100-300) to a large number of contacts (2,000 – 9,000). We found that even with great commercial apps like Google Voice, when a phone has a lot of contacts in its database, things can really slow down.

StartTalking doesn’t actually create a separate contact database, which was another concern I had. This issue of choosing contacts disappeared once I actually used StartTalking because it didn’t take much time at all, and it was easy. The software reads the contact database from your phone and smartly presents contact lists by Suggested, All and Group tabs, plus you can search for a contact directly. Even better, inbound text messages aren’t limited to activated contacts; the app will read any and all messages received.

So how does AdelaVoice make money with StartTalking? There’s plenty of potential for additional speech services and that’s where a “freemium” business model comes in. The company won’t charge for the base functionality of text message communications in StartTalking, but future functionality like voice calling, initiating navigation directions or other voice-to-web services could be an up-sell. The beta version I tested could be linked to Facebook or Twitter for social networking updates by voice, for example.

AdelaVoice, the venture-backed creator of StartTalking, was founded in January of this year and has so far raised $1.05 million, with roughly 60 percent of that backing from Stage One Ventures. Attendees of our Mobilize event will get to see and hear more about StartTalking at the LaunchPad competition on Thursday.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):