Software

Will we talk to the next version of Windows like they do in Star Trek?


"Computer: Open Outlook. New message to steveb@microsoft.com. Subject: Voice interface. Body: Steve, Are we really this close to a voice-powered user interface? Jason. Computer: Send message."

If Windows had a voice interface then that's how easy I would like it to be to send a short e-mail, and that's the message that I would have sent to Steve Ballmer this morning (whether Steve would have personally replied is a different issue).

Yesterday, Microsoft announced that is was buying Tellme Networks, a hot player in voice-powered software, and the deal was driven by Steve Ballmer himself, according to both News.com and GigaOm. Speech recognition software has been a pet project at Microsoft for a long time (Bill Gates has been predicting that usable speech recognition was right around the corner for the past decade). Now Ballmer wants Microsoft to pair its own developments in speech recognition with Tellme, which is a leader in voice-powered customer service solutions (yes, that means those automated phone systems where you talk to a computer with voice prompts) and voice-powered search on mobile phones.

In addition to the obvious Tellme integration that Microsoft can do in its many applications and platforms (most notably, Microsoft Outlook and Windows Mobile), I have to think that part of the motivation for the Tellme acquisition is an attempt to leapfrog Google in the race for voice-powered search, especially on cell phones.

The problem is we all have the expectation of a Star Trek-like experience. That's the vision of success for speech recognition. ZDNet's Larry Dignan shares my skepticism about how close we really are to that kind of seemless speech recognition experience.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

12 comments
pnmngmnt
pnmngmnt

I can't remember the name of the presentation, but about 8 years ago or so I was at a Microsoft hosted meeting for resellers where they were blowing smoke about a fully voice activated systems. The image on screen was a spinning 3D polyhedron that spun and flipped open a different face for each task of course. This same presentation they suggested that all apps were hosted online. It made me smirk a little because Microsoft wants everyone to imagine that the world has high speed internet connections and seamless voice activated computers, but then in the video the guy was telling his computer to fax a document to someone out of his contacts. Are we truly cursed with fax transmissions forever? That thought alone paints a bleak image of the future...

raisch
raisch

Recognizing one of a static list of predefined commands with one or more predefined arguments (especially when you have to modify your natural speech in unnatural ways so a computer can "understand" it) isn't "voice recognition" at all. It's a severely limited hack. For our industry to provide effective computer voice control requires we solve several especially "hard problems" like -- reliably identifying different speakers, -- correct processing under sub-optimal audio conditions, -- recognizing new undefined morphemes on-the-fly, and -- parsing natural language to determine the speaker's intent. Straping a microphone close to your mouth in a quiet room and intoning in a drab, emotionless monotone: "computer... open... outlook... document... name... oh crap what did I call that file again?" is of very little use to most people and only underscores the profound limits of this parlor trick technology. When Microsoft really gears up to market voice-driven interfaces to their products, I'm sure all their efforts will focus on the whiz-bang nature of "talking to your computer" and bury the steep learning curve required of consumers anxious to live in the beguiling dream-world of Star Trek. This will not be a win for Microsoft.

DownRightTired
DownRightTired

I agree. Its like those idiots you see yelling at there phone "DIAL JOHN" no "dIAL John". Main thing I love about my computer is the fact that when im in my office working on it im NOT talking. I can point and click faster than i can say "close main window". Although i could see it as sort of an added input combined w/ the mouse and keyboard. Super MultiTasking! Ill be a little more interested in voice commands when they build a robot that can get me a beer.

jasonhiner
jasonhiner

I think there's definitely a place for voice commands. They won't totally replace the keyboard, touch screen, or other interfaces anytime soon, but the voice command could allow for enhanced multitasking. I can imagine looking up Web sites with the keyboard and mouse while calling up an e-mail or IM via voice commands and sending URLs to colleages. In fact, when that becomes possible, then transparent windows will become much more useful as well.

TNT
TNT

I agree with raisch and would like to add the fact that there is no compelling business market for voice activated computers. Its a simple fact, business needs drive Windows development, not niche markets. Can you imagine a room full of cubicles and a cacophony of users commanding their PC's? Assuming you developed a Get Smart-like "cone of silence" in tandem with voice technology, still no serious user would revert to voice. I can type 50 words a minute; I can't talk that fast. The keyboard is how work gets done, which is why more and more cell phones - a voice communication device by nature - are designed with keyboards! A computer aimed at small, niche markets, a computer like the Mac, may want to add it to smooth the user experience still more. But honestly, from a security and practicality point of view, voice command makes little sense.

Neil Higgins
Neil Higgins

This is voice recognition control to user.We have tried to conect you to the server,but due to abnormal weather conditions,our circuits have gone rusty.Please try Linux,or Mac 13.Error....error....error... I can see it now,after many attempts to open My Folders,the blue screen of death,or should that be scream,leaves me with no alternative but to put the boot into my hard drive,reformat,and wonder why Windows 98 was ever taken off the menu.Oh if only I'd listened to Jim Kirk...."beam me up Scotty"

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't think they're any further along with voice control than Windows, so what's your point?

karmashock
karmashock

This whole "buy mac/linux" thing has worn thin... Every time I hear this I just think less of the person that said it. Get over your stupid OS... That's all it is or ever will be... just an OS. It's not funny or clever or insightful to make error remarks when in fact ALL operating systems have problems. Different problems... but serious problems. I've used various versions of all three major OS's and none of them are anywhere near perfect or right for everyone. Just enough... this is really about as stupid as some nerd saying "star wars/startrek is better then startrek/star wars"... No one cares.

Dave the Computer Guy
Dave the Computer Guy

It amazes me that people get so upset over a few comments made about an OS. Yes Windows, Mac OS, and Linux have all had problems. But if someone wants to give Windows a little dig then live with it. It's not any different then me saying I'd never by a Mac to save my life or that the Mac OS is just a different version of Linux and the machine is a glorified PC. Now that said I hope that someone wouldn't be childish enough to tear me a new one for saying what I think. Get over it and let these comments go.

raisch
raisch

People feel passionately about their biases; this is simple human nature. If it's not one science fiction milieu pitted against another, it's an operating system or computer language or design methodology, or what-have-you. Just be thankful that in this religious war, no one will be burned alive for heresy.

Absolutely
Absolutely

provided you mean the episodes where the computer is commandeered by Wesley, under the influence of an exotic intoxicant; or when Data is summoned to Dr. Soong and takes over the Enterprise; or when Barclay is commandeered by the Cytherians. Captain Picard: "This is intolerable!"

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