Speak easy with voice recognition

Mitel Corp. believes the next level in user interface is speech technology.

Steve Duncan, marketing co-ordinator for Speak@Ease at Mitel, said the company’s latest product is a reflection of that belief.

The Speak@Ease Attendant is the result of a collaboration between Kanata, Ont.-based Mitel and Menlo Park, Calif.-based Nuance Communications. The two companies married Mitel’s call centre and communications technology with Nuance’s speech and voice recognition technology to create an automated voice-recognition based telephone attendant.

“[Speak@Ease] is the first step in our speech recognition products. There are really three applications on this server. One application is just to be used as an auto attendant. When you dial in it will say, ‘Thank you for calling company, please say the name or department you would like to talk to.’ You could say the number or extension or use natural speech and say, ‘I’d like to speak to a person on his or her cell phone’ and the attendant would say, ‘Here is that person’s cell phone’ and it will transfer you,” he said.

Many people are intimidated by old voice mail attendants, where numbers have to be keyed in, but Speak@Ease is more natural and more comfortable to work with, according to Duncan. The attendant, however, can also be programmed for touch-tone attending.

“The second application is really a dialler. When people press the Speak@Ease button on the phone, they will hear a chime and that means they can say the name of the person they want to dial,” he explained.

Users can call from a personal list. They can also go in through a Web browser and take contacts from their e-mail program and dump that list into a personal dialler.

“If you’re mobile and you decide you need to call a customer, you can speed dial into the Speak@Ease dialler and all you say is, ‘Call Joe Smith from my personal list,'” Duncan said.

Mitel has also added a layer of security involving voice verification. “A person would have to log in and answer a verification question. While you answer the question, it is analysing your voice print, and you can’t fake that,” Duncan claimed.

Shawn Riley, a research associate for Giga Information Group Inc. in where?, said voice print recognition is the next wave of security features.

“Everyone in the world has a unique voiceprint, like fingerprints,” Riley said. “Probably in a few years we won’t even need a PIN code. If you have a cold or are holding your nose or trying to disguise your voice, [the system] is going to know. It’s called voice normalization. It kind of gets rid of all the static.”

He agreed with Duncan that voice technology is an important trend. He thinks the end of the line will be complete natural language speech recognition.

“(It’s) where you can call your bank and, instead of pressing one to order more cheques, you can just say, ‘I want to order more cheques, starting at number 1,468,'” Riley said.

Terry Stuart, a partner in charge of e-commerce and Internet solutions for Canada at Deloitte and Touche in where?, said the usability of speech and voice technology is getting better daily, especially word recognition.

He noted the hurdle for speech recognition technology is recognizing unformatted, unstructured free-flow sentences and language.

“The real challenge in all of this is the vocabulary that the system understands – the more constrained the domain that you’re dealing with, the better the recognition,” he said.

Stuart added that the vocabularies for speech recognition systems are getting bigger and bigger, which means the systems are able to understand larger sets of sentences and phrases.

The systems are not perfect and are still pretty expensive, Riley said. “Not many companies are using them. Consumers aren’t very used to it and older, more conservative people still like speaking to humans,” he said. “I mean, some people still don’t like VCRs. You have to get used to it.”

The Speak@Ease system starts at $11,000 and only works on Mitel’s systems, but according to Duncan the next release will work on others.