The voice of technology

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | Updated: Jul 2 2014, 05:27am hrs
It is a strange sight to watch anyone talk to a phone in the middle of a lunch hour at a South Indian restaurant. Before you raise your eyebrows, I said talk to a phone and not into it like we all do. But then there has been a considerable uptake in the number of people saying OK Google Now, thanks to the success of Moto phones in the past few months. However, voice control is no longer a feature that is limited to a Motorola smartphone.

In fact, voice control captured the attention of smartphone users when Apple launched its Siri voice in the iPhone 4S in late 2011. So people all over the world were getting Siri to do stuff for them all the way from skipping songs to booking tables at the snooty downtown restaurant. But Siri was a dud in countries like India, where we speak English very differently from those who trained Siri. Those of us who had spent a couple of days in the West could fool Siri, but not the entire iPhone janta.

This has been the biggest problem with voice control. Even Microsoft Windows has had voice recognition for a few years. It works, provided you had spent considerable time training the machine to understand the way you speak. So you know why it is hard to get it right when millions of people are blurting out voice commands all over the world.

On the flip side, it is this increase in number of users that is helping this technology become better with every passing day. With the success of voice control based primarily on the ability of the machine to match the command with the data base, a larger, ever-increasing database can only make life better. And the biggest example of this is Google voice search.

Google has had voice search for sometime now. Most of us have tried it before and realised that Google has no clue what we are trying to say. But things have changed. Just last week Google India became confident enough to announce that its voice search was good enough to recognise Indian accents. Sandeep Menon, Google Indias head of marketing, said they achieved this by deploying 700 volunteers across India to collect voice samples, which were then analysed by their engines. Interestingly, he asked more Indians to use the service, which is based in the cloud, so that it gets better.

I put the new voice search to test and the very Indian accented voice assistant in the cloud had an answer for everything from how long it would take me to reach office to whether there was any chance of rain this week. I also felt good that her accent was much more Indian than what my government school education had given me. So now you can just open the Google search app or Google Now on your smartphone and demand an answer. And an answer you will get, not a search result.

But will voice control be able to reduce our workload I have always wanted something that could convert to text whatever I was dictating. The best solution is something called Dragon Dictate from Nuance, but it is an expensive solution. There are a few free apps like Ivona and ListNote that do this with a lower accuracy rate. I am just waiting for the day when Google adds voice dictate to its Docs.

A lot of companies around the world are trying to use the voice command capabilities built into devices. An interesting example is Munich-based Tado, which uses Siri to let users control air conditioners in their homes. Voice will be behind a lot of new home automation systems as it is much more natural to just ask your home to become a bit more warmer. If announcements at Google I/O are any indication, the entire wearables revolution is also going to be powered by voice control. Even the cars of the future will need you to just command it to plot the path to your next destination.

That leaves an interesting question. If it took so long to just understand different accents, how long is it going to take the machines to understand all the world languages Or will English be the voice of technology