Big Blue Stars in Opera Voice-Recognition Technology

Norwegian company Opera is adding IBM speech-recognition technology to its free browser software. The company, which raised about $18 million in an initial public offering earlier this month, said it is aiming the standardized ViaVoice speech technology from IBM at enterprise customers and developers initially.

Although we are nearing the finalization of the Voice XML 2.0 standard — and Opera will have competition from Microsoft with its Speech Application Language Tag technology — Gartner research vice president Martin Reynolds said the voice technology is still out of shout’s reach.

“Speech recognition has been emerging for almost 15 years,” Reynolds told TechNewsWorld. “There are places it works, but it is quite spotty. It’s quite niche.”

Sound Investment

Opera has found success taking market share from the dominant Microsoft Internet Explorer browser with its fast and flexible technology that takes less memory to run on computers and handhelds. The company indicated it is now getting a head start on voice-recognition technology.

“Voice is the most natural and effective way we communicate,” said Opera vice president of engineering Christen Krogh. “By making this technology available today for the wider Web audience, the serious work of voice-enabling the Web can commence.”

Opera said it will build IBM’s voice libraries into its browser using XHTML + Voice (X+V), a standard the company claims will allow developers to add voice input and output to traditional, graphically based Web pages to achieve natural voice functionality.

The company outlined a scenario in which Opera’s presentation tool could be used to replace Microsoft PowerPoint. By adding the Opera browser’s new voice capabilities, the browser then could be used to give a presentation and turn to the next slide simply by providing a voice command.

Enabling Voice

Motorola’s Jonathan Engelsma, editor-in-chief of VoiceXML Review, said the separation of platform and application, as well as such standards as the already-used VoiceXML, are enabling the simple addition of more and more voice capabilities in a variety of settings.

“You can do voice-enabled applications over the Web without expertise or a special machine,” Engelsma told TechNewsWorld. “You can write an application to the spec and can then run it on a variety of platforms.”

IBM director of embedded speech and chairman of the VoiceXML Forum Igor Jablokov said the new Opera offering will allow interaction with Web content in a more natural way. He added that developers will be able to leverage their existing knowledge to produce it.

“Developers can also start to build multimodal content using the open standards-based X+V markup language, which unifies the visual and voice Web by using development skills a large population of programmers already have today,” Jablokov said.

Say Again

While he agreed that speech-recognition technology will be all around us one day, Gartner’s Reynolds indicated the technology still must be refined and supported around the industry.

“We’ll find ourselves using a great deal more of it,” Reynolds said. “It is being seeded and built in to all kinds of things.”

However, Reynolds said that with several smaller speech-recognition players collapsing and those that are left staying conservative, the technology is not yet the subject of a fight among its backers.

“There’s not really competition because there’s not really a market yet,” Reynolds said.

Opera said its IBM integrated voice browser will be available initially in English for Windows machines.

Closed Unless Open

IBM’s Jablokov told TechNewsWorld that thanks to a realization of return on investment and emerging standards, speech-recognition technology is ready for the enterprise, where IBM envisions the back-end suppport required to integrate speech nto the enterprise infrastructure.

“What you see is [that] speech is really mainstreaming,” Jablokov said.

Referring to a series of speech-technology announcements from IBM at the AVIOS SpeechTEK 2004 conference, Jablokov downplayed the potential for Microsoft’s competing SALT technology, which is proprietary.

“We’re promoting open standards so we can have that great ecosystem for developers to work to deliver these applications,” Jablokov said. “These [efforts] require some good partnerships to be able to deliver, and you need open, WC3-approved standards. Anything beyond that is just a disconnected toy.”

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