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I'm Listening: Products And Services That Talk

There's more than just talk when it comes to voice-controlled devices. These days, it's OK to talk to your car, your phone and even your alarm clock.

"There is serious money being spent on this at computer and consumer electronic companies," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster based in Silicon Valley. "They know that a breakthrough of robust voice recognition is going to be a winning feature in the marketplace that's going to make some consumer electronics company very, very rich."

And one area where the competition is sure to heat up is the conversational equivalent of subtitles. "The big holy grail application here is real-time voice translation," Saffo says.

But we're not there yet. In the meantime, here's a look at a few products that listen and talk back.

Talking iPhone

Apple's new iPhone has scored high points with blind and visually impaired users because, unlike previous versions of the company's touch-screen phone, the 3GS integrates "accessibility solutions for the iPhone out of the box," says Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of the Blind.

The VoiceOver function of the iPhone 3GS essentially acts as screen-access software. This enables blind people to make calls, send text messages, navigate Web sites and learn about battery life and the strength of Wi-Fi or cellular network signals without having to see the screen. This is accomplished by tapping the screen (once to read, twice to open) and a series of special gestures. The phone can also recite how the stock market is doing.

This is in addition to voice controls, which allow someone to use their voice to accomplish basic tasks like dialing phone numbers or searching for and playing music by selecting songs or performers. (This feature is also integrated into the newly designed iPod shuffle.)

Car Talk

Ford and Microsoft developed a program called SYNC, which enables drivers to use voice commands to play music, make phone calls, retrieve turn-by-turn driving directions or traffic reports and search for businesses, news, sports or weather. It's available on many models of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars. Ford says it has sold more than 1 million vehicles with SYNC, which is also powered by Nuance's technology. Other companies like BMW also have developed their own voice recognition software.

Voice Time

Aside from cars, the integration of voice into everyday products can make life easier for anyone who doesn't want to fiddle with buttons and controls, or for people with visual impairments or arthritis.

Reaching over from the comfort of your pillow is no longer required if you use Moshi's Voice Control Alarm Clock. It allows you to set or adjust the time and alarm with just your voice. You can also check the temperature. The device is activated by saying, "Hello, Moshi" or by pushing the clock face, which prompts the clock to ask you for a command. The company says its software can recognize more than 1,000 different voices based on recordings from each region of the U.S.

Google Talk

Google has already built its own speech recognition engine, which the company says it continues to refine. Its speech group is working to integrate speech into Web searches made with mobile devices. On an Android phone like the T-Mobile G1, it's easy to do a Google search by voice by tapping on a microphone icon or using an app called Voice Dialer to place calls. An NPR reporter had little luck getting the G1 to accurately understand simple voice searches entered while walking or standing on busy city streets. (It wasn't that accurate from a quiet office location, either.)

Google Voice, a service that enables people to obtain one phone number that forwards calls to an office, home or cell phone — or any combination of them — also utilizes Google's speech recognition engine to transcribe voice mail messages into text.

Google is also working on audio indexing, which Bill Byrne, senior voice interface engineer, says is a form of "behind-the-scenes automatic speech recognition." The focus of this is on training the speech recognition engine to accurately transcribe large chunks of spoken words that are part of online video content. So far, Google has experimented with audio indexing using elections material posted on YouTube. The indexing allows people to search for specific words that are spoken in videos by typing them into a search window.

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