Since the train delay voice application demo submitted for the INCA Award does not only exist in Dutch, I thought a French video was also in order. Here it is:
What’s more, IBBT also announced an excellent new initiative for innovative developers: the INCA Awards, with €20K in prize money. The deadline for submission is tomorrow evening – still working on my project! The winners will be awarded at the same iMinds conference on May 12.
See you in Ghent!
See the Plugg website for more details on this European Web startup conference. I’ll be there.
Two of my favourite companies in the speech-driven call automation field today announced their union. By acquiring VoiceObjects of Cologne, Germany, the American voice hosting company Voxeo further expands its presence in mainland Europe.
Voxeo of Orlando, Florida runs the world’s largest VoiceXML platform and is reputed for its extreme service. Three years ago I had the pleasure to work with them while developing the now defunct Beavis and Butthead hotline. I was just as impressed with the stability of their platform as with the professionalism and accessibility of their staff, up to and including CEO Jonathan Taylor.
In summer 2004, just after I started as an independent consultant in this business, VoiceObjects was so kind as to offer me a free voucher for their Consulting Partner Certification. Apart from this gesture, I also appreciated the flexibility and ease of use of their eponymous flagship product which greatly simplifies the development of multilingual speech applications.
Developers like me will surely welcome the announcement that “VoiceObjects will also be available in extremely cost-effective on-demand and on-premise offerings bundled with Voxeo’s own Prophecy VoiceXML Platform.”
About 175 professionals from the Dutch-speaking speech & language technology community gathered in Brussels yesterday for the second edition of Taal In Bedrijf (”Language At Work”). The main goals of the event were to present results from the government-sponsored STEVIN program, to poll for remaining needs in and around the field, and to reflect on the best way to address those needs in post-STEVIN times.
The morning sessions focused on practical applications of Dutch speech and language technology in diverse areas such as multimedia, games, written communication, E-government, E-health, E-learning, (semi-)automated translation, mobility, logistics, and business intelligence. Quite a few of the applications presented have been or are being developed under STEVIN’s demonstrator subprogram, which attracted one million euro, or 8.7% of the total 5-year STEVIN budget.
The breadth and versatility of speech and language technology makes that it is almost always combined with other technologies, as part of a broader solution. As a result, the speech & language technology field as a whole is somewhat diffuse and difficult to grasp to outsiders. During my presentation, I therefore pleaded in metaphorical terms for a “TST Inside” logo (TST = Taal- en SpraakTechnologie) to improve the visibility and accessibility of technological resources like parsers, recognizers, spoken and written corpora, grammars or ontologies. More practically speaking: if we want our companies and fellow citizens to know and use our beloved tools & techniques, this is the time for existing distribution agencies like the TST-Centrale to step up, enter the front-stage and play a more pro-active and visible role. This extension of duties may require an organizational upgrade from its current project status within the INL to an autonomous agency with clear strategies, budgets, targets, plus travelling sales people, lobbyists, and … its own website!
As for the Dutch and Flemish governments’ role, their classic function as subsidizer can be complemented as well. For a start, government departments and public companies (in the European sense) could take the lead themselves and apply speech and language technology in their own daily operations. There is still a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked in this area, especially in Flanders. Three examples, to name just those: De Lijn (public transport company), the Vlaamse Infolijn (general number for government inquiries), or VDAB (Flemish Work Agency).
Another recommendation for the Flemish speech & language field is to structurally organize ourselves, like our Dutch friends from NOTAS already started doing … seven years ago. My own positive experience with the Speech Technology Workgroup within ContactCentres.be -thank you, Peter Edel, for the presentation yesterday- has shown that self-organization is a necessary condition to create a sector in the minds of innovation managers and other decision makers. As any marketing student can tell: if our customers can’t mentally locate us, we don’t exist.
So let’s keep up the good work, and make some (more) noise. Oh yeah, and keep on improving our technologies. But that’s another discussion.
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 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.
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.
Under the auspices of the Taalunie (= [Dutch] Language Union), the Dutch-speaking speech & language industry from The Netherlands and Flanders will meet in Brussels on November 19, 2008 for the second edition of Taal In Bedrijf (best translated as “Language At Work”). The first, 2005 edition in Eindhoven attracted 290 professionals from academia and industry.
I have gladly accepted to moderate the afternoon plenary discussions on the continuation of a joint Dutch/Flemish Speech and Language Technology programme.