iPhone voice recognition app presages a new mobile interface

A newly-launched iPhone application allows Google searches through voice alone. This brings us closer to when non-computing types can work and play in a Web 2.0 world. Imagine: If this future comes to pass, productivity increases in many industries would be huge.

More significant to us marketers, large swaths of the workforce will no longer consider the computing world to be hostile — or at the very least, impenetrable. As I speculated two years ago many workers simply will not make portable computing a habit until it is easy enough to do through speech alone.

You might consider this Part II of a two-part post. Last week I reported on Powerset, Microsoft’s acquisition in semantic search. Now, here is an exciting stride in the the voice-recognition half of the hands-free computing equation.

Below is how the New York Times characterized the voice recognition arms race (at least, the race for the juicy prize of mobile search dominance):

Both Yahoo and Microsoft already offer voice services for cellphones. The Microsoft Tellme service returns information in specific categories like directions, maps and movies. Yahoo’s oneSearch with Voice is more flexible but does not appear to be as accurate as Google’s offering. The Google system is far from perfect, and it can return queries that appear as gibberish. Google executives declined to estimate how often the service gets it right, but they said they believed it was easily accurate enough to be useful to people who wanted to avoid tapping out their queries on the iPhone’s touch-screen keyboard.

The service can be used to get restaurant recommendations and driving directions, look up contacts in the iPhone’s address book or just settle arguments in bars. The query “What is the best pizza restaurant in Noe Valley?” returns a list of three restaurants in that San Francisco neighborhood, each with starred reviews from Google users and links to click for phone numbers and directions.

The emphasis above is mine. Here’s a demo of the new Google app for the iPhone:

This is going to get very interesting, very fast.

As Raj Reddy, an artificial intelligence researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, reported in the NY Time’s piece: “Whatever [Google] introduces now, it will greatly increase in accuracy in three or six months.”

The semantic search problem, when solved, will help computers understand what people are saying based on their wording and a phrase’s context. On the other hand, voice recognition requires something at least as daunting: Penetrating regional accents. The most visible flaw in this first full week of the iPhone app’s release is it is baffled by British accents.

99% of Amherst College’s first-year students pass on a land line

Recently Peter Schilling, Amherst College’s director of IT, posted interesting findings about his students technology preferences. Amherst is hardly a typical U.S. institution of higher learning. Located in western Massachusetts, Amherst is regarded one of the nation’s very best liberal arts colleges. However, Schilling’s findings do show the direction in which our college students are using technology and consuming media.

Some of the points Schilling made have to do with how quicky technology is being adopted, and how quickly old technology is being sloughed off. For instance, the number of first-year applicants applying online has jumped from 33% to 89% in just five years.

On the other hand, of the entire enrolled class of 2012, only five of the 438 first-years students (1.1%) registered a telephone land line. The portability of cell phones has clearly won hearts and minds. Similarly, notebook computers abound. Only 14 students of the class (4.3%) registered a desktop computer for use on the school network.

Here are other findings from the 30-point list that Schilling posted (these are direct quotes. I know point #5 is vague):

  1. Students in the class of 2012 who registered computers, IPhones, game consoles, etc. on the campus network by the end of the day on August 24th, the day they moved into their dorm rooms: 370 students registered 443 devices.
  2. The number of individual film titles in the College’s digital video streaming collection: 1,260.
  3. The number of times these films were watched last year: 20,662.
  4. Number that brought iPhones/iTouches: 93.
  5. Likelihood that a student with an iPhone/iTouch is in the class of 2012: approximately 1 in 2.