No clicking, no buttons: company offers 'speech sites'
By Robin Lloyd
(CNN) -- For those who've burned in voicemail hell, a Boston company has come up with a technological purgatory called speech sites.
Modeled after the information and e-commerce transactions available on the Web, the latest in information technology starts with a telephone number that you'll be able to dial to reach a computer that hears and guides your requests and answers them using voice-recognition technology.
SpeechWorks International has one confirmed SpeechSite customer so far -- McKesson, a large pharmaceutical distributor -- with several others on the line. The product became available in late July.
"SpeechSite brings the Web model of self service to the telephone," says SpeechWorks Chief Executive Officer Stuart Patterson. "What we're doing is leveraging and using the Web model."
Several beta speech sites are up and running and should be functional in the fall, he said. SpeechWorks already has limited versions of SpeechSite operating for various companies including E*TRADE, United Airlines, BellSouth and Federal Express.
The idea is to have a computer recognize and answer questions asked by callers, such as where a restaurant is located and its latest reviews or how soon an ordered shipment is expected to arrive. It's not quite like reaching a live person, but it beats voicemail.
Callers will receive recorded voice responses that are more interactive than voicemail and designed to resemble the type of information available at a Web site. The main exception is that speech sites will offer the option of talking to a live operator.
"There's not an exact parallel at Web site for 'I want to talk to somebody now,'" Patterson said. "This is a difficulty we've tried to solve, a core function: let me talk to somebody and no, I don't want to press buttons."
The idea with SpeechSite is to change expectations for what can be learned over the telephone, Patterson said, and to make it more like commercial information available on the Internet -- company overviews, press releases, schedules and driving directions.
The technology could change the language people use to get information over a telephone. SpeechSite lingo includes clipped phrases like "fax it," "back up" and "find it," and allows for interruptions which are recognized and processed by the software.
Patterson wants eventually to eliminate voicemail, dial-by-name directories, on-hold frustration and even multiple phone numbers for a single company.
"We saw that the technology is there to blow through to a whole different model for how you interact with the telephone to get through to a company," Patterson said.
The technology is based on SpeechWorks' main product, speech recognition systems. But it also is capable of "conversation management" -- responding more intelligently to questions and menu choices, Patterson said.
"If you say something out of bounds, we want our next prompt to rein you in. Good systems do not just repeat what they said; they have a different prompt. Good systems will bail you out into a person," he said.
Patterson says the technology will catch on because people have "had it up to their eyeballs with touch tone" and the Web has raised consumers' expectations for self-service.
"The idea of how you relate to customers revolves around e-business, of which the first modality is the Web. That fits into speech sites. It has given us all the lessons of what you need -- we combine information with transactions and communications."
Patterson is confident that companies will sign up to get their company configured for a speech site -- at a price of $50,000 to $150,000.
The plan is a guarantee that 98 percent of callers will get the information they call for, Patterson said, and responses arrive in less than 2 seconds.
Within nine months, Patterson envisions the equivalent of external hot links -- callers can move from company to company simply by stating names.
SpeechSite is based on technology initially developed and still being advanced at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of SpeechWorks' founders worked with Victor Zue, who runs a highly regarded speech recognition research group at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science.
Jim Glass, a principal research scientist in Zue's MIT lab, says speech recognition technologies have their pluses and minuses.
"Speech is one kind of modality. If I happen to have a computer display in front of me in a noisy environment, I'll want to use my mouse and click," he said.
"But if I'm not near a computer then probably accessing it by voice is a very convenient way to access this information. Certainly speech and language is a very natural thing for humans."
Zue's group now is working on giving people more license in the questions they ask than SpeechSite is likely to offer, Glass said. But it's hard to make those systems recognize questions phrased any way that a user might like.
For a taste, give a call to MIT's Jupiter system, which gives interactive worldwide weather reports around the clock. The number is (888) 573-8255. To check out SpeechWorks' speech site, dial (617) 428-4444.
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