Impressions from VocalExpo 2008 in Paris, France

Ten days ago the third edition of Philippe Poux‘ brainchild VocalExpo was held at the CNIT La Défense in Paris, France. VocalExpo brings together industry professionals and customers in the French (speaking) market active at the interface of speech technology and customer relationship management. Paris is only an 80 minute Thalys trip away from Brussels, so your servant was there.

The Centres des Nouvelles Industries et Technologies (CNIT) at La Défense in Paris, France

The name of the exposition hall was Darwin. Aptly chosen, as the history of speech technology is an evolutionary tale, with predator companies eating smaller species – see Nuance’s recent acquisition of Philips Speech Recognition Systems – and new technologies and applications seeing the light at an ever increasing pace. One basic technology that has acquired a prominent place today in many companies’ offerings is voice biometrics – more on this below. Another trend in the making is that the web browser will gain in importance as a natural interface for voice input, to the detriment of the plain phone. Atos Worldline demoed a browser-based virtual contact centre, written in Flex. The solution allows customers to contact a company’s helpdesk right from their web browser, providing a rich interaction which includes chat & voice, document sharing, and co-browsing. In the demo I tried, it was another person pushing the buttons on the other side of the link. But with an IVVR system at the back-end, the opportunities for multi-channel customer service are only bounded by imagination. The major blocking factors I see for large-scale adoption are customer inertia, lack of usability and lack of security, none of which are insurmountable.

The Arche de la Défense in Paris, France. Picture taken at VocalExpo 2008

Speaking of security and authentication, the most interesting part of the day was the panel discussion on voice biometrics featuring Alexander Huggins from Nuance, François Chaffard from Prosodie, who also represented Voice.Trust in this panel, and finally Ariane Nabeth-Halber, Technical Director NaturalVoice at Hotline. The adoption of voice biometrics in France is hampered somewhat by regulation from the French privacy authorities requiring a case-by-case authorization to use the technology, as well as the explicit agreement of company personnel representatives and the individual users. On the technical side, there were some critical remarks on the alleged immaturity and incompleteness of the MRCP v2 standard, which slows down technical integration of speaker verification engines in a VoiceXML application environment. This being said, the basic voice biometrics technology itself has been around for quite a number of years already and is certainly deemed mature enough for large-scale deployment. Ms. Nabeth-Halber was keen to stress that the balance between security and convenience is also a matter of good VUI design and adaptive dialogs: for example, callers authenticated through their voice and their phone number can pass right away, whereas grey-zone cases do get a second question to answer. The application context which defines the monetary cost of false acceptances versus false rejections is also of prime importance in setting the correct verification thresholds.

The Voice Biometrics Panel at VocalExpo 2008 in Paris, FranceÂ

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