'Are computers that see, listen and learn around the corner?'. This was the question put to a panel debate at the Comdex Spring show in Chicago today, and a number of presentations and demonstrations suggested that the answer to the question might be 'Yes'.
In his keynote speech at the show on Monday, Microsoft's Bill Gates detailed the company's plans for the future of Windows. He said speech recognition, computer vision and learning would be an important part of that future (see Newswire 21 April). The panel discussion, chaired by Microsoft?s general manager for new technology, Dan Rosen, fleshed out some of these PC futures.
Gaston Bastiaens, president and CEO of Belgian based Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products, currently the hottest company in natural language technology, said that a major paradigm shift in computing will occur when people will be able to control their computers by speaking to them, without having to use a rigid instruction set.
Bastiaens said Lernout & Hauspie is working on technology to allow this. And a demonstration of the company?s new Voice Xpress software suggested that the company is further along the way than many would think.
Bastiaens demonstrated Voice Xpress for Medicine, a special vertical market version of an upcoming product that combines continuous dictation with voice control over word processing functions such as opening documents and editing the layout.
Voice Xpress differs from other voice control systems in that it allows different ways of executing the same voice command. For instance, the user can say 'increase the font by two points', or 'enlarge that', or any of a number of a number of different formulations.
Voice Xpress for Medicine has been on the market for about a month, Bastiaens said. A version for the general public will ship next week.
Bastiaens said that ?the day will come? when dictation and voice control functionality are included in the operating system ? something that Bill Gates has also suggested.
However, Microsoft?s Rosen was quick to point out that Microsoft is not making any announcements about including Lernout & Hauspie technology in Windows, despite persistent rumours to that effect.
What has been announced is the use of voice control technology from Lernout & Hauspie in the Auto PC, the Windows CE on-board computers for cars that are expected to start shipping in the next few months. And Bastiaens hinted at a possible next move: voice control of Web surfing with Web TV. Future versions of Web TV will be based on Windows CE, just like Auto PC.
He added that users will not want to browse the Web in the traditional way when using a Web TV device from their couch. ?They will just say: 'give me ESPN, get me the baseball results'," he predicted.
If Lernout & Hauspie is working on technology to give PCs ears, Douglas Nixon of Sarnoff demonstrated technology that will give them eyes. Nixon demonstrated Video Brush Panorama, a product that has been shipping since October. The software uses input from a video camera that is panning around, and creates a seamless panoramic picture of the surroundings. This requires the computer to understand and compensate for the movements of the camera and the changes in lighting and perspective.
Microsoft is working on similar computer vision technology, said a researcher at the company, Matthew Turk. He showed video footage from an earlier demonstration with Gates, where a PC appeared to distinguish between the user making 'yes' or 'no' gestures, as well as recognising hand movements.
Turk said the computer vision group inside Microsoft is working in three areas: Vision Based Modelling, Easy Living and Vision Based Interfaces. The Vision Based Modelling technology attempts to create a representation of the 3D environment, based on input from a video camera.,for instance, to distinguish between the user and the background.
The Easy Living research focuses on intelligent environments that adapt to the user, for instance a car or a room. The Vision Based Interface project looks for ways to use computer vision to control a PC?s operation. Applications include hands-free computing, as well as input for games.
Dan Rosen said vision would some day make it into Windows, too, but not until the technology is sufficiently robust.
In his keynote on Monday, Gates said that cameras would be a standard feature of PCs within three years, and that computer vision would be a more important application of these cameras than videoconferencing. But that looks to be just the beginning of a potential sea change in the role and functionality of the PC.
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