Unified Communications – a Big Topic at the Voice Search Conference in San Diego

I just attended the second annual Voice Search Conference in San Diego, organized by the non-profit Applied Voice Input Output Society (AVIOS) and Bill Meisel (president, TMA Associates, editor, Speech Strategy News). Voice search encompasses a wide range of applications from speech-enabled directory assistance and mobile applications, to speech analytics in the contact center.

Best said by the conference brochure, the conference was held “to address the disruptive role of speech recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, and multimodal user interfaces in mobile and Web applications. Voice Search 2009 addresses the disruptive role of speech recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, and multimodal user interfaces in mobile, Web, and call center applications.” As a way of description, it goes on to say: “Voice Search can find information quickly by a spoken request. In a mobile environment, Voice Search helps address the limitations of a small device for text entry. It creates the option of a uniform user interface executed within the network and largely (or entirely) independent of the specific device.

On the Web, Voice Search can allow audio or video files containing speech, including podcasts or video clips, to be searched by content. A text inquiry can not only find relevant content on the Web, but the location in that audio file where keywords were spoken.

Voice Search makes voice and text more interchangeable. For example, voicemail can be transcribed and stored as text for easy scanning and retrieval.”

Note that the conference description says that the focus is speech technologies as used in mobile, web and call center applications, with no mention of UC. However, unified communications was everywhere at the conference from session topics to panel discussions, which was not at all the case in last year’s event. As a gauge of industry awareness, the interjection of the term unified communications across a speech technology conference shows how pervasive the concept is becoming.

That usage came in many forms from speakers who focused on unified communications, lots of talk of UC in general in sessions, to speakers talking extensively about the business capabilities that are being facilitated by the use of voice on mobile devices; which is a big part of UC. In one of the panels that I moderated, for example, Steve Gutierrez, from Dialogic, spoke on “Unifying Networks for Unified Communications”, which talked of the nuts and bolts of the network. In many of the contact center sessions, I heard plenty of mention of unified communications as well.

Similarly, unlike last year where the focus for mobility applications was just what kinds of things you could with your voice on a device, this year’s focus on mobility and multimodality, included user interface design, speech-enabled mobility applications such as 800-GOOG-411, Vlingo, and 800-CALL-411, and newer productivity applications such as the speech-to-text conversion of voicemails to text.

In one of the most amusing talks of the show, Gary Wright of Applied Speech Resources did a presentation, “A Year Using Voice Search”, in which he chronicled his experiences over a year intentionally using voice search on his mobile device, everyday, and on impromptu road trips. His questions at the outset of the year included do voice search applications live up to the hype?, for what tasks are they most useful, how do phone-based search and multi-modal search differ, and what is the user interface experience.

In addition to ferreting out all manner of interesting UI improvements, supported by some frustrating, but amusing anecdotes, Gary delivered his list of things that worked well as a user and suggested improvements for vendors.

Overall, the conference had exceptional presenters and presentations, carrying on the legacy which was the AVIOS and Meisel conferences of the past. Unlike many conferences I attend that are rife with vendor presentations that border on advertisements, many of the presentations at Voice Search reflected research studies into speech technologies, or real-world deployments of applications. I’m not sure if the show name is too broad or not specific enough, but I would invite any UC player to attend next year’s event.

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