IBM: Your Handheld Will Hear You

The year of speech technology is almost here, according to W.S. "Ozzie" Osborne, general manager of IBM Voice Systems. He offers prototypes as proof, previewing the futuristic systems at a recent Speech Fair at IBM's Santa Teresa Laboratory. Some 2500 research scientists are exploring voice technologies throughout IBM.

IBM is focusing about 80 percent of its investment on speech-enabling the enterprise. But those higher-level technologies will benefit consumers as well.

"Voice will be integral to computing as devices change from PCs to [handhelds]; the interface will have to change," Osborne says. "Carrying around a keyboard will be too hard." After all, he points out, devices keep getting smaller, but our fingers are not.

The Web and voice technology are already being wed in wireless phones. With the help of a pending standard called VoiceXML, you may be able to access Web page content by phone, or surf by asking questions like, "What's the latest list of the New York Times bestsellers?" Already, 64 developers support VoiceXML, which uses Enterprise Java Beans.

"The cell phone is the ultimate thin client," observes Osborne. "Human interface is what we're really working on."

Watch Out for Robby

Focus on the interface is not limited to voice. Interpersonal communications are also driven by interactive visual cues, so IBM is developing bipedal robots that can react to humans.

An early prototype is a table-top robot consisting of a lollipop-shaped head of transparent orange plastic, Muppet-like bug-eyes, and a tiny video camera hidden in its nose. The camera senses movement, so the robot has freedom to make eye contact with its audience as it moves within a 12 degree range, says robot-handler Dr. David Nahamoo, director of worldwide research for IBM Voice Systems.

The colorful contraption could also respond intelligently to conversation; for example, if told, "You're stupid," the robot could frown and then reply in a synthesized voice, "You're rude."

But don't expect to have your own personal C-3PO protocol droid anytime soon.

"Ten to 15 years is a reasonable guess," Nahamoo says, pointedly noncommittal. "The future is really going to be about being able to interact with computers the same way we interact with people."

Mechanical issues must be overcome before a fully interactive robot can become a reality.

"The user interface aspect needs to be worked out, as does the application integration," Nahamoo says. "Visual recognition is much more difficult than just speech recognition, since there are two dimensions [involved]."

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