Siri gets serious

Voice recognition like that used in Apple's Siri application could soon become an integral part of how we use our TVs, home appliances and cars. But it's also expanding in the enterprise.

The success of Apple’s personal voice assistant (PVA) Siri has revitalised the speech recognition technology space and with consumers enamoured by what Siri has to say the revitalisation of the once moribund sector could bring significant benefits at an enterprise level.

For those in the business of developing speech technology, Siri’s success couldn’t have come at a better time. Increased processing power, coupled with the roll out of 3G and soon to come 4G mobile networks, has provided optimum conditions for the technology to take flight.

According to Jason Stirling, senior vice president for the Asia Pacific business of Nuance Communications, companies like his are now capable of doing things that just weren’t possible 18 months ago.

Nuance, which recently sealed a ten-year partnership with Sony subsidiary Gracenote Inc to develop voice-controlled consumer interfaces and last year hit the headlines with its version of Siri, Dragon Go!,  has been in the space since the early 90’s but it was only last year that things started to gather pace.

“We run a hybrid architecture where we embed some our software in the client – a smart phone or a TV – but we can also then run a hybrid architecture which allows it  to talk to a cloud in the network, we just couldn’t do this sort of thing 18 months ago,“ he says.

The third major factor that has propelled voice recognition into the mainstream is the strong emphasis on user experience that Apple’s Siri brings to the table.  

Giving enterprises a new voice

The introduction of an easy to use PVA application on a mobile device has not only opened doors when it comes to how we interact with smart devices but the possible applications of this technology beyond mobile devices are enormous.

Voice recognition could soon become an integral part of how we use our TVs, home appliances and cars. And this excitement in the consumer space has the potential to be translated at an enterprise level as long as businesses are willing to invest the time and effort.

The link between consumers and the enterprise is a palpable one for Stirling who says that it is the next logical step for the implementation of voice technology   

“If you can ask Siri whether you need an umbrella today and find the latest stock quote for a company, why can’t you just pick up the mobile , press a button and ask my bank what’s the rate for a 30 day term deposit.”

The next step

The next step for speech recognition, one that could accelerate the adoption in the enterprise space, is the expansion into Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology, which shifts the focus from what we say to what we mean.   

According to Stirling, the combination of speech capability and NLU will allow businesses to introduce speech based solutions that could be deployed through both phone channels and web channels via Speech and Mobile Care applications.

Some elements of this combo are already being used by banks, telcos and the public sector and that trend is expected to pick up. However, the key to success is a simple, secure interface that will meet the self-service expectations of customers. The self-service trend is on the rise as customers become more mobile, but the use of PVA at an enterprise level requires a significantly higher level of refinement for dealing with multiple and complex usage scenarios. There is also the issue of putting together the voluminous language and speech databases that make a PVA truly accurate and universal.

Making these improvements, even with increased processing power available today, is not a simple task, but Stirling is confident that a lot of the issues will be sorted out within the next three to five years.

“We have ironed out a lot of the wrinkles, the technology is getting better and things like Siri have made customers a lot more comfortable to talk to a system.”

Voice technology at an enterprise level may still be maturing, but there is an interesting parallel here to the social media trend. It took a long time for business to wake up to the fact  that social media had the potential to revolutionise engagement with customers. Voice technology holds a similar promise and  companies that are ahead of the curve right now with regards to investment around speech and mobility are the ones that stand to reap the benefits, as customers get ready to really start talking to their phones.