The race is on to make your computer a conversational buddy. Amazon recently bought a voice-recognition company appropriately named Yap, in an apparent effort to shore up its competitive position against Apple's new intelligent voice agent Siri.
Siri, released with Apple's iPhone 4S, is fast gaining an enthusiastic following. Widespread voice interaction has become the next stage of user interfaces, and some observers predict Apple could be preparing to release TV sets within the next year that employ Siri for remote control. Microsoft's Kinect game controller, whose technology is now being adapted for other uses, includes voice recognition, along with motion sensing, as its driving forces.
Google has stepped up the voice recognition capabilities of its newest version of Android, version 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich. Users will be able to more extensively interact via voice to write e-mail or text messages, or to control phone functions.
Yap's only consumer product was Yap Voicemail, a transcription application available for iOS and Android devices. In early September, Yap was acquired by a company called Yarmuth Dion, Inc., whose mailing address is at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle.
Yap received $8 million total in 2007 and 2008 in venture capital, and there are reports that it has developed innovative technology for free-form, natural language recognition.
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, noted that motion sensing, touch, voice interaction and knowledge of where you are physically and where you are in your task stream are coming together to produce a more humanistic, context-sensitive usability.
"We're really seeing the computer industry as being on the cusp of making devices respond more like humans would," he said.
'Will I Need an Umbrella?'
When Siri was first announced with the iPhone 4S launch, the disappointment that the announcement was not for an iPhone 5 temporarily overshadowed the technology. But, within a few days, Siri's fans grew rapidly.
Rich Jaroslovsky of Bloomberg News, for instance, said that Siri "is something different" than what we've seen before in speech-based features on various devices. Jaroslovsky said that he asked Siri, "Will I need an umbrella tonight?" The robotic female voice replied, "There's no rain in the forecast," while a weather report for his location was displayed on the screen.
He added that, if Siri couldn't answer, it directed him to a Web search. Sometimes, Jaroslovsky noted, "it's smart enough to be occasionally spooky," such as when he asked Siri to text David, and it chose the correct David from a dozen in his address book.
Similarly, The New York Times' David Pogue has called Siri "crazy good, transformative, category-redefining speech recognition." He added that "it's mind-blowing how inexact your utterances can be," noting that Siri even seems, on occasion, to carry on a conversation.
The example he gave was when he asked Siri to schedule an appointment with Patrick for Thursday at 3. Siri noted he already had an all-day appointment on that day, and asked if she should schedule anyway.
Using GPS, Siri can also issue reminders based on location, after being given such verbal commands as "remind me to pick up the dry cleaning when I leave work."