Speech recognition is nothing new.Consumer electronics, cars and automated call centers have been "listening" to commands for years. Google has been transcribing voicemail messages since 2009, and Microsoft baked similar technology into Windows Vista three years before that. So what's the big deal about Apple's new virtual personal assistant named Siri?
She gets you.
In other words, Siri isn't just voice recognition technology, but voice comprehension -- and that's changing the way users interact with their mobile devices. Now, many predict Siri could provide a major boost to a perennially around-the-corner technology, much the way Apple's (AAPL) touch-based iPhone controls vaulted that technology into mainstream use. That could clear the way for a wide range of innovative applications. The voice recognition industry was worth some $2.7 billion this year, according to Opus Research. It is predicting a post-Siri boom in 2012.
What makes Siri so different? Accuracy, according to Tim Bajarin, president of strategy firm Creative Strategies. "What Siri has really introduced is the next man-to-machine interface, and it's making a significant impact on the market of speech comprehension and accuracy," Bajarin says.
Siri's not perfect, of course. The technology still has a hard time understanding some accents, and Apple has scrambled to fix early glitches. But for a piece of software, Siri still does pretty well. The key to that, according to Siri's original creators, Menlo Park, California-based research lab SRI International, is natural language processing. Essentially, Siri takes speech signals, translates them directly into the text users see on their screens and maps those terms to one of its pre-programmed commands such as place a call or compose a text message.
That technology has potential outside of tablets and smartphones. Nuance (NUAN), the creator of Dragon speech recognition software, has been working in healthcare for a decade. Nuance's latest program runs on a physician's desktop, recording speech using a clip-on microphone. The program updates patients' electronic health records as appointments are going on. "One second the patient could be talking about the medical history of their mom, and then the next they're talking about their dad. And the application understands that," says Joe Petro, senior vice president of research and development at Nuance Communication's health care division.