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Industry Insight
September 2001

Jim Machi

Speech Explodes Onto The IP Telephony Scene


You've probably been reading lately about voice processing and future technologies in the IP environment. One technology making especially strong gains is speech recognition. But why is speech becoming so important in IP telephony, and why now?

There are several key, interrelated factors driving the growth of speech in IP. First is that enterprises are seeing that deploying speech-enabled IP telephony applications over virtual private networks (VPNs) can reduce their costs and provide a better business model. At the same time, demand is rising for enhanced services. Mobile users expect the same universal access other users have to those services, and speech plays a key role in delivering it. Finally, standards (and standards-based scripts like VoiceXML) are maturing and becoming widely deployed. It all adds up to explosive growth for speech technologies.

Back To Basics
At the heart of today's speech-IP deployments are basic business principles: Cementing customer loyalty, expanding services, and reducing costs.

One way many companies are looking to meet these goals is by leveraging a service-provider-managed VPN to reduce costs and expand the range of services they can offer their customers.

In a traditional enterprise call center environment, callers use a circuit connection through the PSTN, interacting with a speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR) system. The company pays the 800 charges and the telephony hardware resides at the company site, where it is managed and maintained. Today many companies are looking for less expensive alternatives to this model.

One alternative is outsourcing speech applications. Many hosting or application network-based companies offer their enterprise customers services that let an end user simply dial a local 800 number, which is automatically translated to the local POP server of the network service provider -- incurring no long-distance charges. The caller's DNIS information is used to determine the client; speech engines fetch the desired information. All the telephony hardware, speech interpreters, and engines are at the edge of the network -- owned and managed by the network service provider, which can lower costs for its customers by using the same infrastructure to support many clients. For service providers, speech hosting is another service to add to their hosting portfolios. The services these companies provide empower enterprises to reduce their PSTN hardware requirements -- lowering costs and driving higher margins.

Another key reason for the speech explosion is the explosion in mobile devices. Mobile users expect the same enhanced services and easy information access their office-bound colleagues receive over the Web. The IP environment allows companies to deliver information to their customers and prospects based on their location and inference. Speech-enabled applications give mobile users easy voice access to any kind of IP-based information.

Today's mobile devices range from pure personal assistants to traditional cell phones. Connectivity ranges from pure telephony to pure wireless. Speech recognition is a key input method for all these devices. Already speech is playing a key role in services like voice portals, unified messaging, and network-based personal assistants. Other emerging applications will also find speech the best way to present information.

For instance, one fast-growing class of applications pushes information to mobile users using location-based services. For example, if you travel to a certain city three or four times a year, you might want to receive local information updates over your mobile device. The easiest way to interact with the application is with simple spoken commands.

Growth Through VoiceXML
Standards play a key role in the growth of any technology, and for voice-based services the most exciting new standard is Voice eXtensible Markup Language (VoiceXML). The explosive growth of the Internet was triggered by the acceptance of the HTML scripting standard, which allowed everyone worldwide to access a common Web structure. Today, the VoiceXML standard is poised to drive explosive growth for speech-based services by making them faster and easier to develop, deploy, and configure.

VoiceXML was designed for building audio dialogues that feature synthesized speech output (text-to-speech or TTS), digitized audio output, the recognition of spoken and keyed (touchtone) input, the recording of spoken input, and the ability to give an application telephony features like call transfer and disconnect. The most important design goal of VoiceXML is to bring the advantages of Web-based development and content delivery to IVR applications.

One exciting use of this new language is in voice portal services, which let callers use spoken commands to access and retrieve Web content like weather and traffic information, stock quotes, and sports scores. The kind of information voice portals offer is limited only by the provider's imagination and the interests of the audience.

VoiceXML is also used to provide access to virtual personal assistants and Web-based unified messaging applications. Callers can hear their voice mail and even have their e-mails and faxes read to them over the phone -- all without keying in a single letter or number except the basic access phone number.

The bottom line? The transition to a speech-enabled IP environment is on. And there is no doubt that speech will play a key role in the next-generation network.

Jim Machi is Director, Product Management for the Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group. The Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group develops advanced communications technologies and products that merge data and voice technologies into a single network.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]

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