Speech Interfaces

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About This Technology

October 2003

Speech-interface technologies have made enormous strides as they have moved from laboratory demonstrations to practical use in the marketplace. Though still maturing, these technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated as many consumer and enterprise speech-enabled applications reach the market. Speech interfaces are rapidly emerging as a key enabling technology for major consumer and enterprise telephony applications and for commercial/industrial services and products. Current growth in the speech-technology market stems from consumer demands for simple, seamless interfaces on portable-intelligence and communication devices and from enterprise requirements for more efficient customer-service applications. In the marketplace, ASR and TTS software is now widely available that enables users to create documents and e-mail messages on PCs using voice instead of keyboards. Speech recognition has become prominent in an increasing number of mobile applications—including cellular telephones, in-vehicle navigation systems, in-vehicle information systems, and personal handheld computers—in which speech is easier and safer to use than keyboards or even pen interfaces.

However, with the exception of call-center applications, the technology is not yet sufficiently robust, reliable, and seamless to win mass-market acceptance. More years of R&D are necessary before highly accurate natural-language speech technology is available to drive applications for mass-market consumer products. Nevertheless, in the past few years, remote server–based applications with improved speech recognition and text-to-speech technology have fueled market growth of enterprise services and products. Applications for voice-enhanced IVR systems such as call centers, directory assistance, and enterprise portals have been especially successful. Embedded solutions in cell phones and for telematics applications are becoming commonplace.

Alone or in combination with voice biometrics approaches, speech recognition will be the interface of choice for an increasing number of mobile-workforce applications that require remote data entry, remote access to centralized databases, and access to services and data via portable devices such as cellular telephones and personal digital assistants. Rapid future market growth for speech recognition will depend on user acceptance and consumer satisfaction with usability features such as convenience and rapid, seamless error correction. Ideally, speech recognition is an invisible front end that makes a device easier to use and provides compelling differentiation for manufacturers and applications providers. Consumers and commercial users will choose speech over keyboards as a more natural interface for operating personal and mobile productivity devices.

The improvements in speech recognition, text-to-speech, and voice biometrics systems are now starting to deliver a wide range of applications that provide benefits for companies in almost every industry. Interactive-voice-response systems and speech-technology–enabled directory assistance are increasingly common, delivering high return on investments for companies implementing the systems. Many more applications are at a nascent stage: Speech-technology–enabled telematics, data mining, multimodal devices, security applications, and hands-free professional applications in warehouses and on construction sites are just a few of the speech-technology applications that will see big advances in the near future. In the long term, speech technology promises to unlock tremendous business opportunities by delivering new solutions for user-interface design, appliances, dictation, and translation devices.

Although experts predicted that voice-portal markets would rapidly evolve and grow, voice-portal applications have fallen short of their promise. The market for general information voice portals that provide weather forecasts, traffic information, stock quotes, and other information all but vanished. Companies that focused on this market have gone out of business, become acquisition targets for other companies, or changed their business models. Although general-information voice portals could not establish a viable business model, enterprise voice portals serving employees and mobile workers and company voice portals providing product information to customers still display potential for the future, and first examples have integrated successfully into companies' IT infrastructures.