Nuance: Space age voice-led technology is just around the corner

Siri may have captured the imagination, but
there’s more to voice recognition software than Apple’s software. David Phelan
travels to Massachusetts to find where the industry is heading

Talk to any of the executives at Nuance,
the voice recognition specialists, and it’s not long before they get round to
Star Trek. “We haven’t reached full Star Trek-ness yet, but it’s coming,” said
Peter Mahoney, senior VP and chief marketing officer, in an interview with The
Independent
at Nuance’s Burlington, Massachusetts headquarters.

By this he doesn’t mean, sadly, the Universal Translator which listens to any language known to the Enterprise’s crew – except, of course, Klingon – and translates it on the fly into perfect American English with lip-synching to match. He’s talking about a system which will listen to natural, easily spoken language and convert it to reliably accurate printed text or understand it well enough to perform an activity like paying a bill, sending flowers to Mum and so on.

Of course, there are voice-activated phone services in widespread use already, and they offer a level of security that real people don’t. Statistics, Nuance said, showed that if you want to fraudulently access someone’s bank account, say, the best way by far was to talk to a human being. Machines are less susceptible.

Even so, the most up-to-date systems mostly still require users to stick to a limited vocabulary. To make things work better, Mahoney explained, you need to have a system that knows what you mean if you say “Damn, I forgot to send a birthday card to my brother” that what you really need to say is “Please send this message to this person at this address.” The increase in processing power means that Nuance can now build in recognition of dozens of ways of saying the same thing, to increase naturalness.

The other topic that comes up repeatedly with Nuance is Siri, the voice recognition service on Apple’s iPhone 4S which, to be fair, is coming closer to translating natural words into actions than most. Ask it if you need an umbrella today and it understands you want to find out the weather forecast for where you are and answers in colloquial English.

Mahoney said that just as iTunes popularised downloadable music, so Siri is popularising voice interactions. Since Siri was announced, there have been companies beating their way to his door saying they want voice control, too.

It’s not that Nuance execs are jealous of Apple’s system. Nuance has supplied technology used in some Apple products. That’s all they’ll say, but it’s assumed that this involvement includes at least parts of Siri.

After all, Nuance is the indisputable leader in this kind of technology. It provides the solution for a lot of companies, from in-car systems to healthcare. And where Nuance doesn’t supply the software, you’ll probably find it’s done by Vlingo – formerly a rival and now in the process of becoming part of Nuance. This is the company that gave us T9, the predictive text input system which saved us all sore thumbs as we texted. It has in its repertoire Swype, a cool text input system where you slide your finger across a touchscreen keyboard to make words. And it knows the value of data. SpinVox was a British company which translated voicemails into text – a boon if you didn’t have time to call the network and listen all the time. When it hit problems, Nuance swooped in and bought it. With the company came the translated messages, adding to Nuance's database.

Hullomail, a useful smartphone app which sends your voicemails to your as MP3 files so you can save them or delete them as you please, is now a Nuance service user, too. Its Get the Gist system comes from Nuance. This turns the first 10 seconds of each voice message into text so you know if you need to listen or – if it begins “You may have been missold payment protection…” – not.

This is mostly how Nuance works, supplying software and technologies to companies who build them into their products, rather than direct to the public. There are Nuance products like PC and Mac programs and App Store apps –Dragon Dictation is an example – but it’s not the major part, and can give the impression that Nuance is a small player. It’s really not. Though the arrival of Dictation built into Mac’s next software release could dent sales of some of these products.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before Lieutenant Uhura’s out of a job. As anyone who’s demonstrated Siri to friends knows, it’s not always reliable. Too much background noise or a poor data connection can leave the demonstrator red-faced while friends scornfully insist it would have been quicker to type it in.

And talk to a journalist – actually any journalist – and they’ll tell you that all they want is quick, flawless transcription of the interviews they’ve conducted. It doesn’t seem much compared to a Universal Translator but try it, even with the best programs available (made by Nuance, no surprise) and you’ll see we’re some way off.

Mahoney feels that it’s almost here, probably months rather than years. This is good, and means we can finally crack on with those other pressing developments, like warp speed and transporter beams.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Infrastructure Architect

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Infrastructure Architect is ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Support - Helpdesk Analyst

    £18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a customer focu...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development Executiv...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn