As Internet access becomes a basic necessity, alternative ways to go on-line without a computer will be required by mobile professionals, the visually-impaired, and people without access to computers. Also, more companies will look for new ways to expand access to their Web sites, using voice technology.
The last decade brought an incredible convergence of communications and computers, with the World Wide Web arguably being the single most important development of our times. With the advent of easy access to the Internet, vast resources of information, both public and private, have already become readily available. As the pool of accessible information continues to grow, and better methods of selecting and filtering the desired portions are developed, the Internet is becoming an irresistible magnet for all variety of users. In fact, being connected is fast becoming a basic necessity.
The primary method of access today continues to be the computer, which has certain advantages as well as some limitations. Computers offer a visual Internet experience that is usually rich in content. Some basic computer skills and knowledge are needed to access the Internet. But, computer-based access is proving insufficient for the professional on the move. When in the car or away from the office or computer, accessing the Web is difficult, if not impossible. And, an increasing number of people prefer an interface that allows them to hear and speak rather than see and click or type.
The computer-based Internet experience also does not meet the needs of another segment of the population – the visually impaired. Neither visual displays of information, nor keyboard-based interactions naturally meet their needs, and this segment is often unable to benefit from all that the Information Age has to offer.
Some existing Internet users have also identified problems with the visual Internet experience. Pages are increasingly full of graphics, advertisement banners, etc., which move, flash, and blink as they vie for attention. Some find this “information overload” annoying, and lament the delays it creates by severely taxing the available bandwidth.
The "Digital Divide"
While computers and their use are on the rise, they’re not ubiquitous yet. A large segment of the population still doesn’t have access in the United and other parts of the world. Thus, Internet is limited to only a small fraction of the world population; the majority is left out from the Internet. This gap between those who can effectively use new information from the Internet, and those who cannot is known as The digital divide. Bridging this digital divide is the key to ensure that most people in the world has the capability to access the Internet. Making computers ubiquitous is not a very attractive and feasible solution, at least in the near future, because of various barriers. One key barrier is cost, although the price of a computer has come down significantly in recent years. Insufficient visual Internet Infrastructure is another barrier in many countries and it will take a while to build such infrastructure. Other consumers have a basic distaste for complex technology, which prevents them from accessing Web-based information via a computer. A more natural, less cumbersome way to interface with the net would provide them an opportunity to experience the Internet as well, thus bridging the Digital Divide.
The "Language Divide"
Today more than eighty percent of website contents are written in English language. People in China, Japan and other countries in Asia, countries in Europe and Latin America speak a language other than English as their native language. These people are left out of a significant portion of the World Wide Web. For example, Japanese or a Chinese can not understand the content of CNN or New York Times. This gap of not having access to major part of the Internet because of language barrier is called "The Language Divide". Bridging this Language divide is the key to ensure that most people in the world has the capability to access the major part of the Internet. The demand for machine translation is growing phenomenally as more people each day embracing the Internet. A service that translates the accessed information into the desired language would clearly add value to these users.
As one industry analyst summed it up:
"Having easy access to information is what we’re looking for."
As the need for alternative access to the Internet becomes more evident, several technology companies are pursuing solutions. Their products include “smart” cell phones with visual displays, intelligence built into the handset, and voice-activated Web sites. These products address different aspects of the problems outlined above.
While these alternative technologies are in the pipeline, few are ready for market. But the very existence of a race to market by many companies is evidence of a large potential market.
The Challenge: To integrate existing technologies, or develop new
technologies, to make simple, affordable, alternative Internet access
As the need for an alternative access method to the Internet has become evident, progress continues to be made by technologists to provide such solutions. One key area of focus has been voice-based technology, which would allow a very natural interface for most people, and address the limitations described earlier. A voice interface provides an alternative to the visually based interface. A device such as the telephone provides a readily accessible alternative to the computer.
Several technologies existing today are keys to the solution, but the problem lies in successfully integrating these technologies into useful applications of greater value than their individual components. These technologies include:
- Voice Extensible Markup Language (VXML) which is an extension of HTML, the normal language in which Web pages are created. This technology adds voice capability to a Web page. The page can then be displayed, as usual, over a computer, but it can also be presented in audio format with voice navigation.
- Speech Language Application Tags (SALT) specification for supporting multimodal communication from PCs, cell phones, PDAs and other handheld devices. For example, input can be voice (such as asking for directions) and output can be data (a map pops up). SALT is a lightweight set of extensions to existing markup languages, allowing developers to embed speech enhancements in existing HTML, xHTML and XML pages. As with VoiceXML, applications will be portable - thanks to the separation from the underlying hardware and platform.
- Speech recognition (SR), which allows computers, through the use of software, to recognize spoken language, eliminating the need for the computer keyboard as an interface. The vocabulary recognized in products using this technology tends to be limited.
- Text-to-speech (TTS), which allows text to be converted automatically to synthetic speech. It allows communications between computers and humans through a “natural” interface, such as speech.
- Telephone integration is the key to interface with computers from a remote location. A protocol is needed to communicate with the computer from a telephone using voice. This also includes multimedia integration (e.g. with .wav files).
- Intelligent software agents are needed to automate communication between a telephone and a computer, a computer and a Web site, to interpret the contents of a web page, to extract key information that makes sense in audio, to efficiently navigate through web pages, and to manage access to the Internet.
- Language processing allows translation to other languages, understanding and interpreting of structured sentences. Natural language processing allows us to understand and interpret human languages.
The first technology listed – VoiceXML – is a very elegant solution that leverages technology specifically developed for audio Internet access. However, it requires that Web sites be customized, or VXML-enabled. This means rewriting the web pages in VXML. According to analysts, today there are more than a billion web pages. Assuming that it takes one hour and costs about $100 to rewrite one page, the cost to voice-enable all sites would be about $100B. Clearly, it will take several years before the majority of popular pages are VXML-enabled. Today, only a very small portion of the total Web pages is voice-enabled using VXML.
The second technology listed – SALT – is another elegant technology that allows developers to embed speech enhancements in existing HTML, xHTML and XML pages. However, like VoiceXML, it requires that websites be rewritten or enhanced with SALT and hence it will also take many years before majority of popular pages are SALT-enabled.
In the interim window of opportunity, InternetSpeech has developed a patented solution that successfully integrates the other technologies listed into a useful, audio-based approach for accessing the Internet today. It is independent of the timeline, interest and willingness of content providers to update their pages to be VXML or SALT-enabled.
Another approach is to provide Internet access over wireless devices such as palm pilot or a cell phone with a screen. However, this method has inherent limitations such as the small size of the screen and the need for a special phone. Also there is need to rewrite the website in WML. Today’s wireless Internet industry is facing many challenges due to limitation of bandwidth and small screen. The cost of cell phone based Internet access is very high and users do not want to pay high service fee. Also our eyes and fingers are not changing but the devices are getting smaller and smaller. Thus, existing visual based access is going to be even more difficult in future.
Thus, some fundamental changes need to be made to make sure that wireless Internet can really take off. We strongly believe that effective solutions lie in the following approaches:
- Add audio for data instead (or in addition to) of a small screen
- Add voice instead (or in addition to) of key pads
- Provide Complete and Real Internet content; not just a very small subset of today's Internet
- Provide real Internet contents both in Audio and Visual form. For pictures, tables etc., visual display is the preferred choice
- Add related services like instant messaging, alert systems etc.
Our technology can be easily integrated with the existing wireless Internet infrastructure. By 2004, it is estimated that an aggregate of 4.9 billion people will have telephone access worldwide, while the number of people with access to the Internet will grow to 800 million. Our voice Internet solution can benefit both infrastructure and content providers to provide Internet contents to devices with small screens enabling a "true MicroBrowser" by "rendering" contents from any any web site into cell phone screen. We believe that our technology can fill the void created by above limitations of wireless Internet Industry. This technology will have the opportunity to enable wide range of services for mobile users that would otherwise prove expensive for users as well as infrastructure and content providers.
The InternetSpeech Solution: An audio Internet Technology that allows users to listen to email, buy on-line or surf and hear any Web site, using a simple and natural interface - an ordinary telephone. No computer is needed.
We know that Automation has been very successful in many industries as it lowers the cost and improves the efficiency. Our product netECHO® has the capability to automatically down load web contents, filter out graphics, banners and images. It then renders extracted texts into concise, meaningful and very suitable in audio format texts before using TTS to convert into speech. netECHO also converts the rendered texts into other languages in real time. It can also be easily integrated with any back end application such as CRM/SCM, ERP etc. Thus, netECHO completely eliminates the need to rewrite any content in VXML, SALT or WML. So we strongly believe that our automation based approach will be very successful. Our customers strongly support this approach for inherent saving of time and cost.
InternetSpeech’s first offering, netECHO® mentioned above, is a consumer subscription service that transforms an ordinary telephone into a high-tech tool for accessing the Internet. The phone is a natural interface for most people, and addresses the limitations described earlier with conventional computer access. By simply picking up the phone, users will have all the traditional Internet benefits, including email access, surfing, trading and information retrieval. Wireless, wireline, cellular and WAP-enabled phones will all work with the product.
Subscribers dial a toll-free number, and start accessing the Internet using voice commands. Speech recognition technology in the company’s system allows users to give simple commands, such as "go to Yahoo" or "read my email" to get to the Net-based information they want, when they want it, whether they’re out on an appointment, stuck in traffic, sitting in an airport, or cooking dinner. They’ll be able to quickly locate information, such as late-breaking news, traffic reports, directions, or anything else they’re interested in on the World Wide Web. Using text-to-speech technology, an "intelligent agent" will read the requested information out loud via a computerized voice, and process the user’s voice commands.
People increasingly need access to information anytime, anywhere, whether they're at work, walking down the street, sitting in traffic, or waiting for a plane. InternetSpeech has also introduced a business-to-business software product that lets a company’s customers hear and interact with their Web site from any phone, without a computer. The software will allow customers to retrieve product and pricing information, check order or account status, purchase products, obtain product support, etc., – using their own voice. NetECHO® can be easily integrated with any existing back-end application such as ERP, CRM, and SCM as well as a company’s personal communication and legacy IVR systems. We offer an automated cost-effective system that provides eCommerce support as a comprehensive, integral part of a customer contact. Customers can log on to a company’s system anytime, anywhere and get the information they need using their own voice. Companies can save money and increase customer satisfaction by integrating the Internet into existing processes and systems, such as Customer Relationship Management. NetECHO® automatically voice enables any Web site, eliminating the costly and time- consuming process of rewriting individual pages into new markup languages such as WML, SALT or VXML. This technology can also be used to automatically create voice portals. NetECHO® is compatible with VXML, SALT and WML.
InternetSpeech’s technology is faster and cheaper than existing alternatives. Today, only the largest of companies are making their Web sites telephone-accessible because existing technology requires a manual, costly and time-consuming re-write of each page. With InternetSpeech, existing Web pages are used, allowing users to leverage their Web investment. The software dynamically converts existing pages into audio format, significantly lowering the up-front investment a business must make to allow users to hear and interact with their Web site by phone.
Mintenance costs are also lower because InternetSpeech’s software automatically updates the information in audio format as it is being changed on a company’s Web site.
The Strategy: Be first to market with a simple-to-use, reliable product, then build on the product
Take Advantage of the Existing Window Of Opportunity
InternetSpeech plans to take advantage of the several year window before VXML or SALT becomes ubiquitous, and be the first audio ISP to market with products and services to access the Internet and computers via any phone.
Offer a Superior Product
InternetSpeech has started offering netECHO® service in the U.S. in mid-2000. It will add product functionality and expand its footprint over time.
NetECHO®‘s current capabilities include:
- Surfing and browsing the Web
NetECHO® allows customers access to the vast information on the Internet, without a computer. Customers can use their own voice, via any phone, to explore the Web. NetECHO®’s intelligent agent "reads-out" the information on favorite Web pages and/or news groups.
Customers can access their Web based email account, using their own voice. NetECHO®’s intelligent agent "reads-out" the text of their email, providing them instant access to critical information, anywhere, anytime.
NetECHO® also allows subscribers to search for specific information available on the Internet, without the need of a computer. Using their own voice, via any phone, they can access favorite Web-based search engine to retrieve valuable information. Once located, netECHO®’s intelligent agent "reads-out" the information in a pleasant voice.
NetECHO® enables customers to communicate with their friends, by sending voicemail messages over the Web. This allows them to reach people who may not have voicemail access or answering machines, while also avoiding the cost of long distance phone calls.
NetECHO® also provides direct access to important services like news, stock quotes,
horoscopes, religion, weather reports etc.
The version 3.0 of the product has already launched. We have created a few special features including my netECHO and PageHighlights. My netECHO offers personalized services such as
- My email
- My stock list
- My horoscope
- My Weather
The user has the option of changing the above-personalized information either through web interface or through voice command over phone. PageHighlight feature provides the key information of a page in a short form and allows one to select a topic or headline and navigate to other pages to listen to the content related to the selected topic.
Evolve the Product Over Time
The company plans to add a product that runs on a user’s desktop or Internet appliance. This product will be aimed at users who would like to have voice based remote access to home appliance and other devices.
InternetSpeech plans to expand its business in related areas, such as Voice Commerce, Voice form filling, IP Telephony, and other related Intelligent Agents where it can easily deploy its patented, voice-based Internet access/searching/surfing technology. InternetSpeech will also provide other voice-enabled products and services to interact with computers, information resources or humans in a natural away. Examples of possible offerings include:
- Products related to VXML or SALT capability, once a significant number of Web sites have been converted
- More Foreign language support (Currently supports Japanese, Chinese, and German)
- More efficient Voice Search Engine
- More efficient Voice Form-Filling for many Business applications
- More flexible v-commerce capability
- Voice-activated Intelligent Agents
- Remote control of home appliances and computers using voice-based interface
Provide a High-Quality Product with Outstanding Support and Service
InternetSpeech will focus on providing top quality, reliable products and services. A trained and courteous customer support staff, ready to help users navigate through start-up problems, and move up the learning curve quickly, will complement InternetSpeech’s services and products. Emphasis will be on building long-term relationships with customers as their preferred choice for accessing the Internet and related product and services.
Target Specific Markets
To ensure success and manage growth, InternetSpeech will focus on target markets in both Consumers and Businesses:
- Technology-savvy users, who want the ability to access the Internet in new situations, and are expected to be fast adopters of InternetSpeech’s new technology.
- Senior citizens and the visually impaired, who will benefit enormously from a simple audio interface.
- The general public, specifically those who do not currently have access to computer-based technology, and are the largest potential market, long term.
- Add value and differentiation to existing products and services: Wireless companies, phone companies, Internet Service Providers.
- Automate Voice Enabling: Both businesses looking to expand access to their existing Web sites to customers who call in on an ordinary phone as well as Corporations wishing to offer voice-based access to busy executives, sales professionals, etc., to retrieve and enter information on their Intranet sites. This also includes Application Service Providers (ASPs).
- Automate Voice Portal Creation: Companies interested in creating content dynamically using the Internet as the primary source rather than creating and maintaining custom database which is costly and time consuming.
- Add Voice Internet to Existing Voice Portal Capabilities: Voice Portal Companies looking to complement their technology to allow direct access to the Internet in Audio.
Pursue Strategic Alliances
The company will provide products and services directly to these markets when it makes sense, through local and toll-free numbers. It will also partner with other providers (conventional ISP companies, wireless communications, telephone service providers, etc.), when appropriate. It will offer customized versions of its products and services to OEM’s, resellers and large corporations.
The company intends to strengthen its promotion and distribution capabilities through alliances with various phone companies that provide toll-free numbers, and phone manufacturers. The company will also pursue strategic alliances with conventional ISP companies to provide services helping customers who have computers or Internet Appliances, yet prefer a voice-based interface. The company will also pursue strategic alliances with ASPs.
Remain an Audio Internet Technology Leader
InternetSpeech will remain a leader in the audio Internet technology and the audio ISP field. To do so, it will steadfastly focus on product development and introduction, remain innovative, and replace its own products with improved versions in a timely manner before competitors get there.
InternetSpeech appears to be the only audio ISP in a market characterized
by multiple solutions on the horizon.
More and more applications are using voice to more naturally interface with computers or the Internet. This plethora of solutions being discussed in the marketplace is clear evidence of major market potential.
There are some voice portal companies who offer products, which serve as a "portal" or gateway to a pre-determined database of information, such as stocks, horoscopes, restaurants, directions, etc. Some of the information they use may be drawn from the Internet, or may be gathered from different sources, but the user is not able to interact with the Internet directly. Only InternetSpeech is providing audio Internet access plus portal capability.
There are also several companies who voice enable web pages by rewriting them using VXML. As mentioned before, this is a time consuming and costly approach. InternetSpeech automates this process which does not need the rewriting of the web pages.
There are quite a few companies trying to provide Internet in cellular phone screen by rewriting their web sites using WML. InternetSpeech technology can also read WAP-enabled web sites using an ordinary telephone. Thus there is no need to buy a special phone with a screen if one just wants to listen to the WAP enabled web sites. Also it can integrate with existing wireless Internet infrastructure and provide a wide range of value added services. Since this technology eliminates the need to rewrite any content in WML, it significantly lowers the cost of development and maintenance.
InternetSpeech believes that:
- The Internet will continue to grow, and become an even more pervasive presence in our everyday lives.
- More and more information will become available, and new and innovative uses for the Web will be devised.
- Content and service providers will strive to reach larger portions of the global population, and will search for easy and convenient means to provide access.
- The cost of access and use will continue to drop.
- User-friendliness will continue to improve.
- Voice/speech based interface options will become an important part of the overall solution to access the Internet content. And an automated approach to Voice-Enable or create Voice Portals would be most practical and more common way than rewriting web contents in different languages and maintaining multiple version of the web sites.
InternetSpeech intends to be a premier provider in this growing market.