IBM testing voice-based web

IBM is testing a "Spoken Web" to link communities that have low levels of literacy and low Internet penetration.

IBM is testing a voice-based web to make information accessible to users who may not be able to read or write, or who do not have access to the Internet.

A "Spoken Web" project, currently being piloted by IBM's India Research Laboratory (IRL), aims to take advantage of the rapid proliferation of mobile phones in emerging countries like India. "The penetration of the PC and the Internet is not as high as that of the mobile phone, so we want to ensure that everything that is done on a web browser on a PC can be done with a mobile phone," said Guruduth Banavar, director of IRL, in a telephone interview on Thursday.

The Spoken Web technology will enable local communities to create and disseminate locally relevant content, and interact with e-commerce sites using the spoken word over the telephone instead of the written word, Banavar said.

Using technologies such as VoiceXML (Voice eXtensible Markup Language) and HSTP (hyper speech transfer protocol), Spoken Web mirrors the World Wide Web in a telecom network where people can create and browse "VoiceSites" that have their own URLs (uniform resource locator), traverse "VoiceLinks", and conduct business transactions, according to IBM.

The technology is about a world-wide telecom web of VoiceSites, which can be thought of as websites accessible over voice, and which are situated on a telephony network rather than the Internet, Banavar said.

Users can access the voice-based web using a toll-free number, through a variety of ways including a voice recognition system or a tone phone. VoiceSites can be also created over the phone, using a set of templates on the server side, he added.

The web of VoiceSites can potentially link to the World Wide Web, but the sites on the Web would have to be converted to support spoken interfaces, both via VoiceXML, and in how the content is designed and laid out, Banavar said.

The research lab expects its technology to be relevant to a variety of users looking for information and wanting to engage in transactions. These would include farmers who need to look up commodity prices, fishermen in need of weather information before heading out to sea, plumbers offering their services, and retail businesses like grocery shops that can list products, offer order placement, have personalized targeted advertisements, or set up reminders, IBM said.

Getting a Spoken Web up and running will however require the participation of a number of businesses and agencies including those offering financial services, Banavar said.

The researchers at IRL decided to focus on a voice-based web to address the information requirements of local communities because of the rapid proliferation of mobile communications in developing countries like India. Using PCs was also not practical because PCs cost more, and Internet penetration to most local communities is low, Banavar said. Most users are also not at ease with PCs and very often cannot read or write, Banavar said.

IBM is already doing pilots of the Spoken Web with some undisclosed mobile service providers in India, including one with associations working with visually impaired users. The strategy for the commercialization of the technology in India and other markets will be worked out by IBM's business groups, Banavar said.

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