While the growth of point-and-click electronic commerce is thrilling vendors and customers alike this Christmas, next year voice-activated commerce is expected to be the technology to excite.
According to research firm, IDC, up to $400 billion worth of goods and services will be sold over the Internet by 2002, but while traditional ecommerce had revolutionised the way consumers and businesses buy goods and services, it is still only available to those with access to a computer.
Vcommerce, on the other hand, is expected to take ecommerce to a new level, enabling anyone to shop, buy or obtain support by speaking over a telephone or other connected device.
Although voice-activated computers are only in their infancy, the technology has existed - in one form or another - for about 20 years. And as it becomes more popular, prices are already starting to drop. Systems now cost about $3,000 today compared to $15,000 a few years ago.
"The potential for growth is just tremendous," says William Meisel, publisher of the Speech Recognition Update newsletter.
And although the technology still has a reputation for being "more annoying than useful", improvements in the software will eventually make it something people will not be able to live without, he claims.
As a result, vendors are starting to strike vcommerce deals to promote their offerings.
The V-Commerce Alliance, which includes Motorola, Visa International, BroadVision and Nuance Communications, says it plans to enable mass access to online commerce by coming out with products that have people speak their computer commands instead of typing them onto a keyboard.
The Alliance claims that this means customers will be able to buy and sell over the Internet by talking into a telephone or other device connected to an automated speech recognition system.
Robert Wenig, director of advanced technologies at alliance member, SAP, says: "The telephone is the most widely used communication interface, so when we think of speech in relation to commerce, we think it's an interface with growth potential."
Ronald Croen, president and chief executive of Nuance, an SRI International spin-off, claims the technology will lower costs for customers and simplify purchasing processes for users.
While speech recognition technology is considered key to the v-commerce initiative, Motorola's Voice Markup Language (VoxML) is also expected to play a major role because it simplifies the task of translating text-based product information on a Web site into a speech format, so enabling users to access the site using a phone.
Other important technologies include Sun?s Java, Microsoft?s ActiveX Speech application programming interfaces (APIs); and Nuance Communications? SpeechObjects.
SpeechObjects are a set of reusable speech application components, aimed at speeding the development of speech recognition systems, particularly if used in conjunction with Java and ActiveX speech APIs. The components are designed to be portable so that applications can be deployed on key server platforms and interactive voice response environments.
If SpeechObjects is used with VoxML, HTML developers can also extend their Web applications to incorporate speech recognition.
But, the V-Commerce Alliance attests that it is not trying to supplant traditional ecommerce - it simply wants to broaden it out for telephone access.
And voice-only commerce is just one of three options that vcommerce covers, it says. A second option enables customers to conduct transactions over the Internet using speech commands instead of a mouse, while the third means that the phone and the Internet can be used interchangably.
For instance, users could make a reservation over the Net, but change it later by phone.
And it would seem that companies are recognising their need for v-commerce as customers insist on consistently high levels of service over any automated channel, particularly the Web and the phone.
According to a report from Forrester Research, "over the next 24 months, companies need to adopt a cross-channel service strategy that will enable customers to use any channel they choose and to switch channels easily."
Therefore, as speech recognition technology has matured, voice-based telephone user interfaces have become increasingly ubiquitous.
Fidelity Investment, for example, is building v-commerce applications so that its customers can obtain quotes and account balances and complete transactions for equities and mutual funds over the telephone.
"At Fidelity Investments, one of our goals is to make it convenient and easy for customers to complete self-directed transactions wherever they are. The vcommerce applications will enable us to provide consistent functionality and service over both the telephone and Web," says Steve Cone, president of customer marketing and development for Fidelity?s Personal Investments and Brokerage group.
He adds that the firm is using Nuance's natural language speech recognition technology for its project, along with Charles Schwab, American Airlines, and General Magic.
Nuance?s offering is based on a client-server architecture and can speech-enable stand-alone machines or a network of servers.
"We have one base product upon which different applications get built. Each customer tailors the technology to its own transaction needs. But it is sophisticated enough that American Express uses it for booking travel reservations over the phone, and the software can understand concepts like "tomorrow" and shorthand like "JFK,", says Ron Croen, Nuance?s chief executive.
Edify is also using Nuance?s offerings to voice-enable its self-service Electronic Workforce software, with the aim of providing more useful information to its customers. Its application is currently in beta testing and will be rolled out in the first quarter of 1999.
One of the advantages to the software, the firm claims, is that IT managers only need to maintain one application for both Web and phone access.
Francisco Kattan, Edify's manager of interactive voice recognition (IVR) marketing, says: "You can make travel arrangements using the IVR interface and change it on the Web if you need to."
But last year, the two companies also collaborated on the retail industry's first natural language speech-enabled automated call handler for US retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Company. The application was launched by Nuance in April and is now handling more than 120,000 calls for information a day.
This year, American Airlines (AA) also became the first US carrier to enable its customers to speak into a telephone instead of punching information into a touch-tone phone. As a result, Executive Platinum members of its airmiles scheme can now simply say their alpha-numeric Aadvantage account number instead of punching it in by phone.
The system was based on technology from Nuance and Periphonics, and American has just expanded its use of speech recognition technology to include its Dial-AA-Flight automated flight information system.
John Samuel, AA?s managing director of interactive marketing, said: "Providing superior service is one of the top priorities for American Airlines, whether our customers come in over the Web or the telephone. We see commerce as being an effective way to meet that objective because it provides access to important information and services, no matter what interface they choose to use."
Other vcommerce alliances include Lernout & Hauspie?s (L&H) cross-licensing agreement with GTE Internetworking's BBN Technologies. GTE plans to use L&H's RealSpeak technology, which produces human-sounding synthesised speech, in its network offerings, and L&H is using GTE BBN Hark Recognizer, a vocabulary speech-recognition engine and toolkit, to create IVR products.
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