Speech-recognition technology could soon — finally — get its moment in the sun. Democratic senators last week introduced legislation that would require states to ban texting and e-mailing while driving or risk losing 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding. The move came on the heels of a study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found texting while driving increases the risk of an accident 23-fold.
While I’m generally skeptical of legislation that protects us from ourselves, the evidence supporting such a ban is pretty compelling. And there’s every chance that the bill — or something like it — will eventually pass: The nation’s largest carrier supports federal legislation against texting and driving, and the effort is getting plenty of support in the mainstream media and other outlets.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. already ban texting and mobile e-mailing behind the wheel, and financial pressure from the feds would surely bring most — if not all — of the other states to heel. Such a move would throw open the doors for speech-recognition technology, which presumably could allow drivers to check their messages legally, without ever touching their handsets.
In the meantime, Apple is throwing its weight behind speech navigation with Voice Control, which enables users to make calls and control other iPhone 3G S features by speaking rather than typing, and is showcasing it with TV spots.
That kind of functionality is nothing new, of course. I bought my first speech-enabled phone about a decade ago, and plenty of users have grown accustomed to making calls by talking to their phones instead of scrolling through contact lists. Apple’s marketing acumen, though, is likely to push voice navigation into the mainstream much the way it has enlightened users that they can browse the web, share images and find local businesses on their handsets — despite the fact that these use cases had existed for years before the iPhone made its debut.
Speech-recognition technology isn’t perfect, of course, as any test drive of even the latest offerings will demonstrate. But I think voice navigation will play a huge role in mobile data consumption in the next few years. The key for carriers, app developers and other players will be introducing the functionality in ways that maximize simplicity and minimize the risk of failure (and the consequential user frustration). Voice navigation should be intuitive and well-integrated, but — given the shortcomings that still plague the technology — shouldn’t be oversold as a surefire way to turn spoken words into text.
Whether they come courtesy of a corporate marketing campaign or federal legislation, the opportunities for developers of speech-recognition technology have never been better.
Related Briefing: How Speech Technologies Will Transform Mobile Use (July 2009)