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Originally published April 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 23, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Voice searching being heard as an emerging technology

Major companies, such as VoiceBox, Nuance, Google and Microsoft, are placing big bets on speech, making it one of the more promising developments in the burgeoning wireless industry.

Seattle Times technology reporter

VoiceBox Technologies


The Bellevue-based company is developing speech-recognition technology

Founders Mike Kennewick, chairman and chief executive; Rich Kennewick, president; Bob Kennewick, chief technology officer; Tom Freeman, senior vice president of marketing

Founded 2001

Partners XM Satellite Radio, Toyota Motor Sales USA, Johnson Controls, InfoSpace, IBM

Employees 85, including 64 engineers

Funding The company has been privately backed by the founders and strategic partners, such as InfoSpace and other companies. It is currently seeking a round of institutional money.

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Victor Melfi Jr. sits in the front of a Lexus SUV, showing how quickly you can skip through information from 170 stations of news, sports, music and traffic.

Ask for the Sonics score, and the electronic voice answers: "They are not playing today." Ask for the traffic on Interstate 405, and it asks, "In which city?"

Melfi, the chief strategy officer at VoiceBox Technologies, is demonstrating how his Bellevue company is at the forefront of an emerging technology: voice searching.

In this case, he is showing how devices can store a lot of information but have no good way to find answers. He likens it to merchandising an entire grocery store in a shoe box.

"We are trying to solve the problem of the interface," Melfi said. "There's the ability to triple-tap, and there are menus, but it all just doesn't work. Instead, we are solving the problem on the mobile phone through the power of language."

VoiceBox and others are working on a technology found in science fiction, or in the popular 1980s TV show "Knight Rider," in which David Hasselhoff interacts with a dashboard computer named KITT.

VoiceBox Technologies


The Bellevue-based company is developing speech-recognition technology

Founders Mike Kennewick, chairman and chief executive; Rich Kennewick, president; Bob Kennewick, chief technology officer; Tom Freeman, senior vice president of marketing

Founded 2001

Partners XM Satellite Radio, Toyota Motor Sales USA, Johnson Controls, InfoSpace, IBM

Employees 85, including 64 engineers

Funding The company has been privately backed by the founders and strategic partners, such as InfoSpace and other companies. It is currently seeking a round of institutional money.

Although it is not yet fully realized, several companies including VoiceBox, Microsoft, Nuance and Google are placing big bets on speech, making it one of the more promising developments in the wireless industry.

Voice recognition is receiving particular attention because the problem is escalating. As devices expand in capability and shrink in size, usability sometimes goes by the wayside.

Wireless carriers, in particular, have felt this pain for years. They want phones to do more so they can sell more and make more money, but subscribers have been slow to adopt new services because each additional feature becomes harder to find or more difficult to use.

Longtime technology

Speech technology has been around for years.

To date, it has been used mostly for directory assistance, where it allows callers to say the city and state and the listing they want.

Over time, the technology has branched out into other phone-tree services, such as customer service in airlines and banking.

In those scenarios, the consumer often walks through several menus to get to the ultimate destination. When the system doesn't recognize a word, the user may be directed to an operator.

But recent advances make voice recognition far more accurate and less of a nuisance.

Consider a number of high-profile announcements recently that have thrust voice into the spotlight as a cure-all of sorts.

The frenzy kicked off last month when Microsoft purchased Tellme Networks, a developer of speech-recognition technology for a reported $800 million.

Microsoft said it plans to integrate the technology into some of its best-known applications.

Tellme, based in Mountain View, Calif., takes billions of calls each year and handles about half of all U.S. calls to directory assistance.

Last week, Tellme launched a mobile-phone application that, among other things, allows users to search by voice on a wireless phone but receive results on the phone's screen.

Google recently launched a 411 service that lets users search by phone by calling 800-GOOG-411.

Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance also launched a voice product earlier this month, a product for directory assistance, like Jingle Network's 800-FREE411. The system gives callers, either from wireline or wireless phones, access to information.

"I think it's very exciting that companies like Google are experimenting, and they are launching something with their labs. It demonstrates the importance of voice and adds credibility for what we've been saying for a while," said Angus Davis, a Tellme co-founder responsible for the company's business and product strategy.

The motivation for companies to integrate speech into their products is a desire for advertising revenues, a big change from the days consumers paid about $2 for telephone listing.

Melfi envisions building a connected service that links multiple systems — navigation, the Internet and phone.

For instance, a mom driving her children may enter her location and destination in a navigation system. When her children get hungry, she asks the computer in the car for nearby pizza places.

The computer says there are three, and one is running a special. By phone, she can call and place an order.

Tellme's Davis said consumers don't want to pay for information anymore.

"We believe that search and finding information on the phone — which has been traditionally expensive — should be more like the Internet, where there's advertising to support it," he said.

Of course, the details on what an ad would look like are still being worked out, and there's limitations on a phone, where the screen is small.

"You don't want to do obtrusive advertising," Davis said.

Falling short

Although the technology has made a lot of progress, it still has far to go.

With the recent announcements, Tellme and Google both have products available for consumers to try.

Tellme's mobile-phone application is available for download to a handful of mobile phones from Sprint and AT&T.

The user interface has a sleek design with an all-black background. When a user asks for the city and state, the user holds down the Send key and speaks into the phone: "Seattle, Washington."

To conduct a search, the user holds down the Send key again and asks for a listing — "Costco." After a few seconds of searching, the phone displays three locations. Click on the Fourth Avenue South store, and an address appears and allows the user to click to call, see a map, get directions or share the address with a friend.

That's when things go well.

Search for "tennis courts," and you get escort services. Search for "The Wynn" in Las Vegas, and you'll get results for Goodman. Search again by saying "The Wynn Hotel," and it works.

Tellme's technology also is available by calling 800-555-TELL, where many more searches can be conducted, including those for ringtone purchases, business searches, stock quotes, news and sports.

When conducting a business search, you ask for Thai food, and even specify a neighborhood. For results, you can request a text message that includes a link to a map.

Integration

A search for Thai food on Google's new voice service returns many of the same restaurants. Results sent to the mobile phone by text message included address and phone number, but no link to a map.

Unlike the Internet, it makes sense to integrate a voice component with the phone, Google said.

"If they are calling from a mobile phone there, we should offer a mobile feature," Kosar Jaff, an engineering manager at Google, said during a panel discussion last week in Kirkland on mobile advertising. "People want voice-based communication."

VoiceBox's technology is used by Bellevue-based InfoSpace's mobile-phone application Find It!, which allows users to look up businesses. VoiceBox may also appear in XM Satellite Radio products later this year.

Melfi said VoiceBox's technology is slightly different. The company has been developing technology that models language, rather than trying to recognize words.

Melfi said he doesn't look at Microsoft's acquisition of a competitor, Tellme, to be a threat, but a way to increase buzz in the industry.

"It's true what they say, it doesn't scare me — it brings validation to the entire market," he said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

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