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Feature Article
November 2000


Where The Wireless Things Are:
How Can Speech Technology Solve The WAP-Enabled Phone's Toughest Challenge?


Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) -- the industry accepted bridge between the Internet and wireless devices may have flung wide open the door to Web-enabled wireless phones, but many potential users remain ambivalent. There are several obvious problems that have not been well addressed. The cumbersome keypad and restricted LCD display limit the usefulness and appeal of the handheld Web. Speech technology addresses this issue, and promises to make wireless Web-enabled mobile phones and small handheld computers much easier to operate. Rather than stopping to use a stylus or hunt through the letters and numbers on a mobile phone's keypad, users with a speech-equipped wireless Web device may gain instant access to Web content by simply speaking into the phone and asking for it. Mobile phone users don't need to surf the Web -- they need fast answers to specific queries. Speech technology lets them ask specific questions and hear instant answers.

The question remains: Is speech technology up to the challenge? Many design project managers, developers, product managers, and engineers think it may be. This is an important question because through architecting the right interface, a company designing wireless Web devices and mobile connectivity can deliver what customers want most: Sleek, portable devices that offer complete connectivity, without the inherent limitations of a cramped, and often awkward, interface.

Wireless Internet access is based on the convergence of mobile devices, telecommunications, and Internet services. A typical wireless Internet access setup might combine a mobile phone, a wireless data connection, and a technology (or several) for input and output. One such input/output methodology is a browser interface employing WAP. WAP is an open, global standard that bridges telephony services and Internet browsing, and is currently the main standard for delivering text and graphics to a browser on a wireless device (much like a desktop Web browser). Speech technologies can provide WAP-enabled devices with a voice interface for input and text-to-speech technology for output.

Pitfalls In The Wireless Internet
The challenges: How can a pocket-sized device with a two-inch by two-inch display process and deliver the same information provided by a full-sized desktop computer with a monitor?

The small size of most wireless Internet access devices limits their processing power and bandwidth. Often these devices employ a stylus and keys the size of Chiclets. These devices also have a very small display screen, making it difficult to view more than a line or two of data at a time. Simply, not all Internet content is suitable for the minimal textual and graphical displays that WAP offers. How can these small-sized devices best provide Internet interaction for their users?

For both wireline and wireless Internet access to be truly useful, they should be available to the user in a simple to use format, keeping in mind location, format, and language. Everyone would agree that the primary purpose of wireless Internet access is to provide quick and easily read information, but the size and portability of most wireless access devices dictates that information searches are fast, easy, and accurate, requiring a sophisticated set of tools that can eliminate the prolonged surfing, linking, and browsing that traditional Web searches require. Supporting the user's native language may not be an option in the coming years. Therefore, wireless (and wireline) Internet access should also support translation technology.

Automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology can create a speech user interface (SUI) that allows users to issue commands and request information using voice only. The SUI eliminates the need for "Chiclet keys," the stylus, and other awkward input mechanisms. Unlike a keyboard, a SUI is not restricted by the size of the device. It is an intuitive interface requiring little or no training. Text-to-speech (TTS) technology can also help eliminate the difficulties involved in trying to present reams of information on a small-sized display. TTS technology "translates" written text into synthetic speech, "reading" Web content aloud.

Like ASR, TTS can be employed irrespective of the size of the access device. Employed together, ASR and TTS technologies give users a fast and very intuitive manner of transferring information, even with the limited size of wireless Internet devices. Users can achieve even greater flexibility and usability when ASR and TTS are combined with natural language processing (NLP). NLP is a form of artificial intelligence that recognizes and processes conversational speech, eliminating the need for specific phrases or words for commands, searches, or inquiries.

The job of wireless Internet devices is to provide instant access to desired information from anywhere. The real question is whether or not speech technology can adequately replace keyed-in commands. To do so, it must be very good at accurately recognizing users' spoken commands, while still maintaining the flexibility to free users from memorizing specific words and phrases. The software must have significant memory and processing power at its disposal for this application. Text-to-speech (TTS) read-back voice is also a crucial element, especially if mated with a multilingual, voice rec technology. It is unlikely that a company would get very far in the marketplace offering only a clipped, robotic TTS engine.

Global Internet access supports business and personal uses as varied as information requests from tourists traveling in foreign countries to academic research on international Web sites; the more targeted and precise the results of a query, the better. One solution is to deliver search results as summaries to handheld wireless devices, with the option to receive full documents. Fully supported by multilingual technology and speech-enabled protocols, applying WAP in such a sophisticated manner is all but the pre-supposed destiny of the wireless world.

As WAP becomes more pervasive, more information is likely to be processed on servers and sent in standard format to different types of browsers. This will decrease the need for processing on the client side. Concurrently, though, overall technology will continue to improve, providing better client/terminal performance. The question is whether future users will settle for the current performance level in a smaller-sized device, push for even smaller devices and settle for less performance, or yearn simply for a more usable format. One of the options open to developers eager to make speech work is distributed computing. Speech and language technologies supporting wireless Internet access may reside on the client device, on the server, or between client and server. Vendors are currently employing all three approaches. As with other emerging technologies, it isn't clear which, if any, approach will become the standard.

In the foreseeable future, technological enhancements such as increased bandwidth will improve the usability of wireless Internet access. These technology changes will also increase the chances of speech and language technologies becoming pervasive. The increased bandwidth offered by broadband networks -- high-speed circuit switched data (HSCSD), general packet radio service (GPRS), and universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS) -- promises the delivery of more and more information to mobile users. The processing power of mobile terminals will increase as the technology advances. Both of these developments will require increased use of content management technologies to find, categorize, and summarize the additional content. As worldwide use of the Internet continues to increase, access services may begin to provide advanced applications of speech technology that will allow machine translation to support multilingual use.

The promise of speech to make technology as easy to use as asking a question or issuing a command appears more tangible with every technological advance. Wireless Internet access is revolutionizing the manner in which Internet information is requested, delivered, and accessed. While the industry and its business models are still evolving, it is clear that the number of wireless data users worldwide is growing exponentially. No one can predict all the applications that the new technology will make possible, but one thing is definite: The marriage of speech technologies with WAP-enabled handhelds will be at the forefront of wireless Internet applications.

Pamela Ravesi is senior director of product management for Lernout & Hauspie's telephony group. She is responsible for defining L&H's telephony strategy, products, business partners and business plans. She has successfully launched over 40 different products in nine different languages worldwide.

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