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Have you ever ...
  Talked to the Internet?
Voice Portals (Part1/2)

By Daniel Cheung
January 1, 2001

Talking to the Internet

A fledging group of services in the USA, called voice portals, wants to breathe new life into the low-tech telephone and transform it into a hands-free, PC-free, and cost-free device that can access the Internet.

Accessing the Internet from a telephone is nothing new, of course. WAP has enabled many wireless phones with microbrowsers that let you check e-mail or surf text-only sites - or WAP sites. But up to this point, what they offer is a limited, often frustrating form of Web access, where information must be read on tiny screens and responses painstakingly entered on tiny keypads.

Partly due to these problems, many experts in the computer, wireless and Internet industries have seen the value of allowing users to use voice commands to access information. Bill Gates, no less, has made his views perfectly clear in a recent interview with Red Herring (Feb, 2000) , "... People not only want to have a speech-recognition interface with their PC screen, they want to have it with their telephone. When you call someone, you want to be able to call up information on your cell phone screen, such as a project dateline or movie schedule, and you should be able to navigate through that information by talking into your phone because it recognizes your voice. And you want every Web site to be set up so users can take advantage of this feature."

How the Voice Portal Works

A web voice portal lets you access the Internet from any phone (mobile or home) and use your voice to navigate through menus and locate information. Most voice portals are free services, but you'll have to endure frequent ads while waiting for what you want. Here are the steps to follow:

1. To access a Web voice portal, simply dial a toll-free number from any phone (usually a mobile phone). The service presents you with a list of items.

2. Pick the topic you are interested in and then tell the service exactly what you're looking for, using only your voice.

3. The voice portal uses speech recognition software to convert your request from speech to text.

4. The voice portal dumps the text into a search engine and performs a search on the Web to retrieve the information you requested.

5. The information is downloaded from the Internet to the server of the voice portal, then converted from text to speech and delivered to you over the phone.

Voice portals have not arrived in Australia to date, as far as we know. However, it is quickly becoming another viable option for surfing the Web in America. Voice portals take advantage of speech recognition and processing to eliminate these constraints. (The technology works with both wireless and desktop phones.) Instead of entering a URL, you dial a toll-free number. Most of the voice portals reviewed in preparation for this article offer basic information such as weather reports and stock quotes. However, each also tackles more ambitious tasks as well. Voice portals do an adequate job of guiding you when you're stuck, overall. Say "help" or "what are my choices?" and a friendly voice will tell you what commands you can use to move around the service. But voice portals also face some challenges. We have found so far that no service gets it completely right. Some, of course, outperform others.

For example, what happens when you're presented with a list of Cinemas? On the Web, your choices are listed at once on the screen, making selection easy. Even microbrowsers do a good job of presenting menus. But any voice data must be presented sequentially, as we can process only one choice at a time. This means that the presentation of information, if not carefully prepared, can be painstakingly time-consuming and exceedingly expensive, especially if accessed through a mobile phone. Therefore, a voice portal must organize content wisely and develop spoken commands that let users move rapidly through a list or allow them to jump from section to section. But that is tricky. If a voice portal offers too many options, users will grow frustrated listening to long menus or having to remember numerous commands. But if users are offered too few, they will have little reason to come back.

This leads to the second challenge: What content should a voice portal include? Navigation limits - along with the fact that many users are mobile - means that they will want to get information and get out. Many users will not care about news reports or the joke of the day - they will more likely want to find the nearest restaurant or check traffic. Each portal answers these questions differently.


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