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July 01, 2008

Product Review: Vlingo's Free, Web-Based Service Is Expanding Mobile Phone Use

By Michael Dinan, TMCnet Editor


This was the original message that a worried wife tried to send through a grapevine to her imprisoned husband, Johnny Dangerously, in the 1984 film of the same name: “Vermin is going to kill Johnny’s brother at the Savoy Theater tomorrow night.”
 
But after passing through six prisoners and a parrot, the message “evolves” by the time it reaches Johnny in the mess hall: “Johnny and the Mothers are playing ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ in Vermont tonight.”
 
Though comical in that movie, real-life users of speech recognition services know the frustration that comes when what they say morphs into something unrecognizable.
 
That’s part of what makes a new, free service from a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company so unique: With a few exceptions, it transcribes speech accurately.
 
But by creating a service that’s Web-based and integrates with mobile devices, officials at vlingo are introducing something that’s far more than straightforward speech recognition.
 
Last week, vlingo officials announced that their voice-powered interface is integrating with Research In Motion’s BlackBerry (News - Alert) devices. The technology free at http://www.vlingo.com/vlingo/download.jsp – allows people to use their voices to send e-mails and text-messages, search the Web, open applications such as calendars and maps, dial on their phones, look up contacts and even leave notes for themselves.
 
Some of those features are familiar – pressing a button and speaking a command to call a contact or dial a specific number, for example.
 
But with vlingo, users can also send e-mails and text-messages without the tedious work of squinting at tiny handheld keypads that serve as keyboards, going half-blind to tell someone they’ll be late for dinner.
 
And here’s what’s so unusual and promising about the service: Even if the systems’ vast dictionary doesn’t recognize a word at first, users can type it into their phones, and it will become a new part of the shared language.
 
Let’s take a newsworthy example, as a much-anticipated weekend series in the Bronx between the second-place Boston Red Sox and third-place New York Yankees approaches this Independence Day weekend.
 
I press the button on the side of a BlackBerry device to activate the vlingo service, say “send message to Mike Dinan, message: The Yankees can handle Hideki Okajima and Jon Papelbon, too.”
 
Here’s what the BlackBerry returns to me: “The Yankees can handle the Kentucky Okajima and Jon Papelbon too.”
 
That’s pretty good for a first go-round (Dave Grannan, the chief executive officer of vlingo, located in Cambridge’s lovely Harvard Square area, is a loyal Red Sox fan, so it makes sense that the service already can spell the dominant closer’s name, P-A-P-E-L-B (News - Alert)-O-N).
 
Okajima – maybe because he hasn’t been as good out of the Boston bullpen – appears not to be in the vlingo vocabulary yet, so I have to type in his name. But then I send myself another message, and it comes back accurately: “I would love to see Hideki Okajima come in and try to stop us.”
 
The following messages also come back accurately:
 
“The Yankees will sweep the red sox behind Derek Jeter this weekend,” “Josh Beckett will get hammered by the Yankees this weekend,” and “Alex Rodriguez will pass Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list against the Red Sox this weekend.”
 
According to Grannan, the keys to vlingo’s service are its “discoverability” and “usability” – essentially, the ability to use speech-powered technology to make mobile phone users’ lives easier.
 
Grannan said eventually the speech-powered technology will allow users to access online stores to purchase ringtones or wallpaper, and integrate with social networking applications such as Loopt, which allows cell phone users to locate each other through satellite technology. The service also is expanding into different languages, Grannan said.
 
People appear to be catching on to vlingo. More than 10,000 BlackBerry users downloaded the service within two days of its launch, Grannan told TMCnet during an interview.
 
Vlingo is currently supported on the BlackBerry Pearl, Curve and 8800 series smartphones. Grannan said the company expects other operating systems, such as those for Windows and the widely anticipated 3G iPhone (News - Alert), to support the service later this year.
 
Future features of the service will include the ability to write in shorthand – “BRB” when users say “Be Right Back,” for example, which will serve as a money-saver for those whose texting plans charge a fee when messages go beyond a specified number of characters.
 
Recent data shows that text-messaging is on the rise, especially among young cell phone users. One Dutch company recently called for texting revenues around the world to double by 2011 to about $165 billion.
 
Vlingo’s service fills a unique niche in the mobile phone communications market.
 
There are companies that offer similar products, but not as high-quality and not as broadly.
 
Dial2Do’s service is also free during the company’s beta test and will work with any type of phone, the company says. But the service requires users to dial an access number in order to use the service. Other services, such as SimulScribe (News - Alert), have people who proof copy that’s been transcribed by speech recognition software, but charge a fee to do so.
 
In the end, Johnny Dangerously discovered what his wife, Lil, was trying to tell him while he was in prison.
 
“Vermin’s going to kill my brother at the Savoy theater tonight,” an exasperated Johnny told the prisoner who delivered his wife’s message.
 
“I didn’t say that,” the prisoner replied.
 
Johnny’s quick response: “No, but I know this grapevine.”
 
Michael Dinan is a TMCNet Editor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.
 
Don’t forget to check out TMCnet’s White Paper Library, which provides a selection of in-depth information on relevant topics affecting the IP Communications industry. The library offers white papers, case studies and other documents which are free to registered users. Today’s featured white paper is The Compelling ROI Benefits of Contact Center Quality and Performance Management Technologies, brought to you by Voice Print International (News - Alert).


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