Monday, April 21, 1997

Week of 04/21/1997

Voice-Activated Systems
Next Challenge for Designers of Operating Systems
- by David Matthews 2

We’ve been hearing a lot from Microsoft and Apple about the "next" generation of computer systems. Microsoft is competing with Netscape in creating THE Internet Browser, and I hate to say it (since I am a Netscape fan) that Microsoft has the edge because they will be able to integrate their browser with the desktop of it’s operating system. We’ve been hearing about network computers and Internet systems for the television. We’ve been hearing about Java and Active X, and the attempts to getting these integrated into the operating systems.

And yes, I have read Bill Gates’ book The Road Ahead which talks about his vision for computers and their role in society. This adventurous road that seems to be just around the corner but we still aren’t able to see it yet.

Seen it, read it. But amongst all this talk of future and near-future technology, there is still something missing from the mix. Do you know what it is?

Eh? Can’t hear you.. SPEAK UP!

That’s right. SOUND. We can make the computer talk thanks to an endless supply of sound files, but what about our own ability to talk to the computer? What ever happened to voice-activated systems?

Today’s computers are STILL dependent on an external source, such as a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, or a trackball, to deliver commands. But time can be simplified a whole lot better when you can simply TELL the computer what to do. Think about the time needed to move the mouse, click on the various icons and buttons to get to a program. Now compare it to simply telling the computer to run the program. See the difference?

Voice active systems are not new either. Creative Labs, creators of the ever-popular Sound Blaster sound cards, experimented with a voice-activated program called Voice Blaster. Dragon Systems has their own version in use for the Star Trek Omnipedia program. And there are already expensive "electronic butler" programs available for home use so people can give vocal commands to open curtains, turn on the TV, etc. There are even hotel chains who are installing these systems as part of their "techno-friendly" suites.

So why hasn’t Microsoft or Apple picked up the ball and developed an OS program with voice-active capabilities? Why, in their quest to out-do each other, have they forgotten about the one thing that will give them the definitive edge over their competition?

Consider the advantages of an OS with a Voice-Active System (VAS). With a VAS, users can open and close programs with a few select words. You can tell the computer to "Run Chess," and when you’re done say "Close Chess." At no time having to move your mouse. And with a VAS chess game, you can even tell the computer which chess pieces to move instead of using a cursor and mouse.

In terms of security, a voice-active OS is more efficient than a keyboard/mouse only input system. Passwords based on typed words or even symbols can be duplicated, or passed around. Voices, however, are much like fingerprints. Even the best vocal impersonators can imitate your voice, but not duplicate it.

A typical start-up for a voice-active OS would involve you telling the computer to recognize you by your name. You would say, for instance, "Recognize Bob Jones" into the microphone. The computer would have your voice sample in memory and would then customize itself to respond to your voice. It would even be able to reply in whatever tone, male or female, you wish.

If your voice sample is not in it’s memory, the computer might ask you to set up a quick profile. This would involve you saying your name, then five words of different pronunciations like "today," "mother," "yesterday," "tomorrow," and "hello." Words that will help establish the range of your voice for the computer to understand you. For a more detailed setup, the computer can help determine what kind of voice you would like the computer to use in replying to your commands, as well as the mood you would like it to be in. That way if you say "Computer play chess," the computer can reply "Yes sir" instead of "OK." You can even give the computer a name so you can call it "Alfred" or "Bill" instead of saying "computer" all the time.

VAS can also be helpful for the users on the Internet. A voice-active browser can save the time needed to go though dozens of bookmarks. Simply say "Computer go to Microsoft" and the browser will take you to Microsoft’s web site. You can also tell the computer to search for a word by saying "computer search coffee" or "computer search Atlanta Braves" and the computer will take you to a search engine like Yahoo that has already begun a search using the parameters "coffee" or "Atlanta Braves."

VAS also opens the door for using the computer more and more for home tasks. Such visions similar to the ones Bill Gates detailed in his book The Road Ahead. Imagine saying "Good Morning" when you wake up and have the computer open the curtains and start up the coffee machine for you. Or saying "sleep in 2 hours," and have the computer automatically turn off the lights and TV for you instead of having them on all night. These things can’t be done only on a keyboard/mouse system.

In short, the future of computer development rests with the development of voice-active systems. Without VAS, computer development will be stagnant. The technology to develop VAS is already here, it only needs to be implemented into the next generation of operating systems.

The only stumbling block rests with Microsoft and Apple. It’s up to them to decide where they want to go tomorrow.

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