Talk to your TV, sing to your phone

Published: Dec 16, 2012, 08:38 IST | Anjana Vaswani |

If you're alone this Christmas or New Year's Eve, pull out a phone and pour your heart out to Siri. She may not sympathise, but there's a good chance she'll understand. Before you sit down for that heart-to-bot though, why not instruct your oven to prepare dinner and ask your TV to search for your favourite shows? Voice recognising applications have truly arrived! Should you be thrilled or terrified?

You’re a terrible singer,” this writer overheard a 10 year-old complain, slim phone held inches from his face, as the ring of little humans around him leaned in to listen. “You’re certainly entitled to that opinion,” a female voice responded impassively. Eyes lit up and the tiny throng giggled as the gadget was handed to another micro-Cowell. It has been a year since Siri, Apple’s personal voice assistant application was integrated into its mobile operating system (for iPhone 4S, iPhone 5 and iPad 3), and since then the female guide has successfully achieved fame, complete with all its frills, ignominy included.

Samsung’s televisions — from series 7, 8 and 9 — are equipped with motion and voice detectors. They have features such as face and voice recognition. PIC/Nimesh Dave

Pro-choice groups were among the first to be ticked off when Siri couldn’t locate abortion clinics. Feminists questioned the need for a female voice to do the assisting, even while the name Siri became one of the top baby names of 2012. And now, having been embroiled in a brothel-scandal (Shanghai users have been asking Siri to help them contact prostitutes and escorts). Can her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame be far?

Handy hands-free
Glitches notwithstanding, the merits of such voice-recognising applications can hardly be denied. Consider, for instance, its utility for visually impaired individuals or for the physically disabled. And really, isn’t this what everyone has been waiting for ever since Richie Rich comics introduced readers to Irona, the Rich family’s super-efficient robot housekeeper?

Twenty seven year-old Shoaib Lokhandwala, proprietor of Steel Surgeon, an iron and steel trading and machining company in Mazgaon, for instance, genuinely appreciates the Google Voice application that was uploaded on his Samsung Galaxy Note as part of an automatic update “a couple of months ago.” When he spoke to us, the Santacruz resident was excited about having typed out an entire email, “without having to type at all.” As a supplier of industrial steel to auto companies, Lokhandwala quite literally has his hands full at his workshop, which naturally makes the speech-to-text application particularly useful to him.

He explains, “A previous voice assistant on the gadget would announce the name of callers, and even though the pronunciation was strange and skewed, that too was useful when I’d ride my bike to our company’s units in Nasik and Sinnar.” Then, highlighting the efficiency of the new, “far more advanced” application, Lokhandwala explains, “One has the option to choose between Samsung or Google — I prefer Google’s voice app — and then you can command the phone to dial a number or dictate entire text messages or emails. It’s just like using speakerphone and your pronunciation isn’t a problem — it picks up words smoothly, effectively erasing the need for a keypad.”

That’ll be all, oven!
Samsung — incidentally, the South Korean company seems to have raced past other electronics giants in this arena — also aspires to bring the technology into homes. When this writer bought a Samsung oven recently (model no CQ 138S), a label on the box it came in stated that it could be fitted with a voice-recognition application. Imagine getting your cooking done with a command (no backtalk either) — does it get any better than that? Sadly, when we enquired about the feature, we were informed, “The application is not currently available in India.”

Here’s what is though — admitting that the technology was introduced in the local market around July-August this year, Shyam Janjani, store manager at Vijay Sales (Infiniti Mall, Andheri) tells us, “Samsung’s televisions — from series 7, 8 and 9 — are equipped with motion and voice detectors and have features such as face and voice recognition.” The largest of these, a 75-inch LED is priced at Rs 7,00,000, the smallest at 46 inches, being priced at Rs 1,00,000, Janjani tells us, explaining that all a user has to do is, “say Channel 32 or Volume Up and the TV will follow the instruction.” Equipped with similar features, LG’s 3D smart TV range will also be available here soon — “next year,” going by the team leader of the LG World Record Campaign Team LG WRman Greg’s response to a query an Indian consumer had posted on the company’s e-forum.

Shoaib Lokhandwala, who has a workshop at Reti Bunder, Reay Road, uses the Google Voice application on his android phone to “type” emails and messages without using his hands. PIC/Bipin Kokate

Here, in the meantime, Hexolabs Interactive Technologies, Chennai-based provider of speech recognition applications, has created a “mobile Antakshari application for Idea users,” says 30 year-old Rajamanohar, CEO of the company and IIT Kanpur alumnus. The Antakshari application was first introduced three years ago and has been especially appreciated in North India. Earlier this year it was also launched with Telenor in Pakistan. “It’s the first time in this country that voice-recognition has been used for a non-functional application,” Rajamanohar says, “Users play against a bot-automated component which picks up the last consonant from the player’s song and responds with a song accordingly.” But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Look who’s talking now
“In the US and other developed markets, instead of speaking to a receptionist to schedule an appointment, you dial a number, say the doctor’s name and then the call gets directed accordingly,” Rajamanohar offers as one example of an everyday use of voice-recognition apps overseas. In fact, when it comes to this technology we’re far behind the western world. In early 2011, UK’s Daily Mail reported that the country’s biggest selling car, the Ford Focus, would soon come fitted with the world’s most advanced in-vehicle voice communication system.

In July this year, Ford delivered. Launched in the Philippines, the new Ford is fitted with an application which allows it to connect to any smart phone or mobile gadget via Bluetooth. So the driver or passengers may make phone-calls, participate in conference calls, send text messages (and receive messages which would be read aloud), and select what music to play simply by using voice-commands. Now, if the car could only parallel-park on command too!

Telling us that his company is currently working on creating entertainment and cricket based applications, Rajamanohar predicts, “Voice biometrics are likely to be introduced here eventually too — systems which, for instance, will even allow you to operate your bank accounts through voice commands. Pilots are already on, but the technology still needs to be customised to suit the Indian market.”

Shh! Someone’s listening
Nishant Padhiar, Editor, Stuff and What Hi-Fi? however says, “We may see more of this technology in three or four years, maybe. First, companies would have to convince consumers of the efficiency of these apps. There’s also a huge confidentiality issue with voice biometrics.”  In fact, security concerns prompted IBM, one of the world’s largest computing companies, to ban employees from using Siri at work in May this year.

The iPhone’s license agreement, according to reports, reads, “When you use Siri or Dictation, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple in order to convert what you say into text.” This information is used to make Siri more responsive. But what it means is that your voice, and, quite possibly, some personal information about you, is stored at some database somewhere. Now imagine what a risk that poses if your bank accounts are voice operated. What if someone hacks into the database and gets a hold of your voice?

Dushyant Prnara, manager, sales, Bio Enable Technologies, a company that develops advanced electronic identification, automation and tracking products and services is aghast. “This can be disastrous! Though here the use of voice biometrics is limited for now, the last thing you want is to share your voiceprint.”

Too far away
Shayne Rana, Deputy Editor, Tech 2 isn’t too worried though. “So far, here, in India, this technology’s restricted to phones and TVs. It’s a fad and there’s still a lot of work required — yes, even with regards to safeguarding the consumer,” he says. But Rana has more immediate concerns. “Would a TV be able to accept commands in a crowded room if more than one person offered instructions? And while Google’s voice-recognition application and Siri are easily available, try using these on our buses and trains! The developers also need to refine the products to understand Indian accents better.”

Padhiar concurs. “The huge plethora of Indian languages, dialects and accents makes it difficult to design voice-recognition gadgets in this market. Even if you programme these to respond to English, accents across the country — even across the city — vary so much.” Padhiar says even he struggles to use Siri and as much as Lokhandwala loves the new feature on Samsung Note, he too admits it’s a challenge to use this in noisy areas, “impossible on trains.”

Rana, whose team has tested speech-to-text applications and voice-activated navigation systems, says, “Some apps are really good but you need to have the microphone right near your mouth and the performance varies with accents.” Rajamanohar adds, “Speech technology is ideally suited for mobile computing but the challenge is to make a system that can work flawlessly in India, a country with diverse slang, dialects and accents. A sincere innovation in this space could become a game changer; similar to what GUI (Graphical User Interface) has done for computing.” Still, everyone agrees it’s a great innovation, one that, with some fine-tuning, will eventually make it possible to complete tasks without so much as lifting a finger. So, very soon, your Sundays could get even lazier. 

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