IPhone Embraces Voice Recognition Technology

Google has bolstered its search software for Apple's iPhone with voice recognition technology. The application, which was released this week, doesn't require the user to push any buttons. It is available free of charge through Apple's iPhone App Store.

The promise of voice recognition technology means that if you're in your car or walking on the street and suddenly you want Thai food, you can speak into your phone and request, for example, "Thai Food, Los Angeles." The phone will process this and the next thing you know, you've got a list of the closest Thai restaurants along with phone numbers.

"It works by catching a small digital snippet of your voice and passing that along to all of Google's servers," John Markoff, senior technology writer for The New York Times, tells Alex Cohen. Google tries to interpret what you've said and then converts that to text that it runs through its search engine to provide results.

The application uses the iPhone's location detection capability to tailor the search results so that when you say "weather" or "movies," you obtain results nearby without having to input a city or ZIP code.

Markoff says the technology works well. While experimenting with it over about five days, he found that it produced the right answer more often than the wrong one. It's still not close to 90 percent or 100 percent accurate, however.

"I used it in an extremely noisy restaurant and it still was able to get reasonable results, which surprised me," Markoff says. "It has good resistance to noise and background interference."

Voice recognition technology has been steadily progressing. Markoff says the first system he saw was a Navy-funded research project in the early 1980s that was designed by SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. This system was designed for driving a battleship by speaking simple commands such as right, left, ahead or stop.

"Now, I'd make the argument, for example, that if you have a very simple airline reservation and you want to use, for example, United's interactive voice response unit over the telephone, it's simpler to use speech recognition than it is to go to Expedia, which I think is a meaningful bar."

Still, the ease of use of voice recognition can also have some downsides. "It's also one of my nightmare scenarios — as a bicyclist — that people like you will be driving all over the place looking at your iPhone."

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