Voice Power!

The most natural interface for a wireless phone is voice - or so popular sentiment would suggest.

The most natural interface for a wireless phone is voice — or so popular sentiment would suggest. And it may be true, but improvements to both voice recognition technology and content will have to be made before users will choose to ask the phone for information rather than type in commands.

For the past several months, Ive been testing Qwest Communications International Wireless voice recognition add-on service powered by BeVocal. Though its impressive, I wouldnt pay an extra $4.95 per month for it — at least not yet. The service is improving, though, and might eventually be worth the price.

The so-called browser allows easy navigation through a preset roster of topics — such as news, stock quotes, driving directions and television show updates — and the technology does a surprisingly good job at understanding some difficult words, like weird street names. Its not always accurate, though, and often words must be repeated.

In the first months I had the phone, the content was very limited. Traffic reports, for example, mentioned only ongoing city construction projects — if I commute the same way each day I already know about those road hazards. But within a couple of months, the reports became more valuable, and now cite specific snarls and when they might be cleared.

Many of the services could be better-tailored to the region. For example, the system couldnt understand me when I asked it for traffic conditions on the 520 — one of two bridges that connect Seattle with the eastern suburbs. Ive lived here for a couple of years and have never heard the road called State Route 520, which the system does recognize. I only figured that out by listening through the entire list of traffic problems.

The same regional touch was lacking in the business-finder section. For now, it only includes chain stores. If Im traveling and looking for a restaurant, I dont care to find the closest Dennys or Applebees — Id rather visit a local favorite.

As with any voice recognition product out there today, this one is basically useless when there is background noise. But it may be that the handsets themselves must be improved to filter out the noise and zero in on the voice.

The service may also encounter a marketing snafu — its a mistake to call it "voice browsing." That misleads users into thinking they can ask the phone to go to any Web site and grab specific information, when in reality only a limited amount of canned information can be accessed.