2000 Investor's Business Daily
Talking Heads Lend Voices To The Web
She has green hair, a thin smile and
heralds a different way to get the Net - via voice. Ananova, the first virtual
newscaster, debuted on the Web last month, attracting a lot of media and user
"Many millions of hits" crashed servers
around the world, claimed Jonathan Jowitt, senior project director for London-based
Ananova Ltd. The 3-D character is fictional Max Headroom's more serious cousin.
She was built by the British Press Association, which named its Internet media
unit Ananova Ltd. and has put it up for sale. Ananova "reads" news, generating
human-sounding speech from text. Visitors to Ananova.com click on her picture
to start a video newscast. Eventually, Ananova will be able to listen and interact
with her audience; for example, responding to a spoken request for sports scores,
Voice is coming to the Net, and not just
Ananova's. This summer, some drivers will be able
to surf the Web by voice from their dashboards.
But already, anyone with a telephone can check their e-mail simply by "asking"
for it. This is largely the work of speech synthesis and voice-recognition software,
along with the acceptance of a new standard way to build Web pages to be heard
Within five years, 45 million wireless
phone users in North America will access the Web regularly by voice, says The
Kelsey Group Inc. of Princeton, N.J., a market analytic firm. "There are a ton
of start-ups promising to push Web-based content by voice," said analyst John
Dalton of Forrester Research Inc.
Overseas Users One voice-Net product of
Motorola Inc. provides a way phone companies can offer voice and text browsing.
With the product, users of Web-enabled cell phones can view or hear Internet content,
and any phone system with the product can let people surf the Net by voice. Julie
Roth, a division marketing director at Motorola, likes testing it. "I often get
in my car and listen to Net content, or ask it to dial a number for me," she said.
Motorola customers are starting to use the system overseas. It's not yet available
in the U.S.
The company is part of the VoiceXML Forum,
an industry group developing VoiceXML, a set of programming code to voice-enable
Internet sites. It picks up where HTML, the language used in creating almost all
Web pages, stops. Users can call and hear Internet sites that are VoiceXML-adapted.
AT&T Corp., IBM Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc. are co-developing VoiceXML,
which 130 firms now support.
Some also are working on services that
will help users get certain Web content by phone. Motorola is humanizing its voice
service with a name. "Mya" is billed as a cyber-generated personal assistant who
can read e-mail or transport users around the Web. "She" is represented in Motorola's
marketing as a 3-D ultrablond answer to Ananova. Automatonically correct in a
silver jumpsuit, she debuted in a TV commercial during the Oscars telecast, saying
warmly, "Hiya. I'm Mya." But the Mya service will be just voice, not the 3-D character
used to market her. Ananova, though, could start popping up on Web-capable cellphones
next year. Her makers are in talks with European mobile phone service providers.
Britain auctioned off spectrum licenses for such next-generation video cell phones
"The future is not that far around the
corner," said Jowitt of Ananova Ltd. "The problem is fitting her into that tiny
(cell-phone screen) display."
The nuts and bolts of a talking, listening
Web are voice-recognition and speech-synthesis programs. In development by many
companies for many years, the quality finally is getting good enough for commercial
use. Voice-recognition programs are so good they're replacing human voices on
some call desks.
"Online brokerages and the airlines are
saving tens of millions of dollars by moving to automated voice support," said
Forrester's Dalton. But turning a page of text into understandable talk has proved
more difficult. "Text-to-speech technology is still lousy," said Dalton. Said
Jowitt, "It's a funny thing, this text-to-speech. Humans put in little breaks
and emphasis to employ more meaning." His team is working on a new "emphasis algorithm"
to help Ananova make her points. Ananova is no "10" in voice quality. "She's probably
about a 6 or 7," said Jowitt. But like Eliza in"My Fair Lady," Ananova's getting
Other Services Handlers are tweaking the
voice-synthesis program she runs on. It's called RealSpeak, from long-time voice
company Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products NV of Ieper, Belgium. Beyond the
big splash of Ananova, other voice-browsing services are quietly going online.
"We have a browser that can browse any
Web site using any phone," said Emdad Khan, chief executive of privately held
InternetSpeech.com in San Jose, Calif.
The firm plans to release its NetECHO voice-browsing service in a few weeks. Voice
browsing "is going to grow exponentially because more people have telephones than
computers," Khan said. He expects mobile users, unwired seniors and the visually
impaired to find the service particularly useful. He says many disabled people
must have voice access to use the Web.
The visually impaired have used voice recognition
and speech synthesis products for years. Also, PC users can buy off-the-shelf
software. But the quality of products designed for consumer use has been widely
Potentially easier voice-interactivity
with the Web is coming through these new services that offer the Net by phone.
Lucent Technologies unveiled its PhoneBrowser product in March. Like Motorola's
system and InternetSpeech.com's service, it lets users have Web pages read back
aloud. PhoneBrowser is being tested through users of motor club DriveThere.com,
a project of St. Louis-based Influence LLC and Ultradata Systems Inc.
Surfing By Voice
The telephone may be the "ultimate information
appliance," says analyst William Meisel, chief executive of TMA Associates of
Tarzana, Calif. "If you want to surf the Web the conventional way, you at least
have to download a browser and sign up with an Internet service provider." With
these voice services, he notes, "you just dial an 800 number."
Behind the Web efforts of companies like
InternetSpeech.com, Tellme Networks Inc., BeVocal Inc. and others is voice-command
browsing technology from Nuance Communications Inc. The Menlo Park, Calif., firm
went public April 13 at 17, and hit 50 last week after it said first-quarter revenue
rose 60% from the year-earlier quarter. It's now trading near 40. Another voice-browsing
provider is Vocal Point Inc. of San Francisco.
Some other services, like TelSurf Networks
Inc., let a passable computer-synthesized voice read back a user's e-mail, but
provide a more appealing prerecorded human voice for news, movie listings and
other information. Users dial up to check a calendar, send and read e-mail, and
get driving directions, news or other items. But they can't access the whole Internet
by any stretch - just bits the company has customized for voice delivery.
"We're signing up about a thousand people
per week," said Richard O'Dea, product marketing director for the Westlake Village,
Calif., firm. Similar projects exclude e-mail because it requires text-to-speech.
"We don't believe the technology is at a point that works with the mass consumer
market," said Mike McCue, chief executive of Tellme in Mountain View, Calif.
"We're trying desperately to use human voice," affirmed Nick Unger, chief executive
of Fairfax, Va.-based Audiopoint Inc. Quack.com Inc. is another information-clipping
voice portal, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., as is BeVocal of Santa Clara, Calif.
Other large and small firms also are introducing
ways to use voice to access limited parts of the Internet, as they explore what
consumers want. Human voice services are the ones to watch, says Forrester's Dalton,
because they're easier to listen to.
"Tellme has a very good interface. The
service works. BeVocal is also a strong contender, with deep pockets to do some
development," he said. But Lernout & Hauspie Chief Executive Gaston Bastiaens
believes there's plenty of room for computer-generated voice.
"Text-to-speech on Internet is going to
be big," he said. And it will be personal - one's own voice can be captured and
emulated. "The interesting thing is you can create a real virtual personality
through speech that can read news or your messages to you," Bastiaens said.
Ananova, for the record, doesn't have a
British accent. It's more U.S. mid-Atlantic.