Belgian voice technology company Lernout & Hauspie demonstrated new speech applications at the Comdex show today, including a pager that can receive voice messages over standard alphanumeric paging networks.
Also on show was VoiceXpress, L&H's first entry into the emerging market for continuous dictation. The company - in which Microsoft holds an eight per cent stake - also announced Madison, a text-to-speech toolbar for Windows 95, and demonstrated its real time translation technology for the Web.
VoiceXpress combines newly developed continuous dictation technology with the existing Voice Commands product from its Kurzweil subsidiary. The latter allows users to issue commands to their word processor in natural language, for instance allowing them to enlarge a document's font by saying 'enlarge the font', 'use a bigger font', or a number of other variations.
This lad L&H president and CEO Gaston Bastiaens to claim that "dictation is too narrow a term" for VoiceXpress, referring to the product instead as "document creation".
VoiceXpress is expected to reach the market early next year. Though competing products from Dragon and IBM are already for sale today, L&H claims that the integration of natural language command processing provides its product with an edge. The software requires a Pentium 200 with at least 32Mbytes of Ram.
The VoiceXpress technology will be shipped in a number of forms, including variations for various vertical markets such as medical applications. There will be two products for horizontal markets: the basic product and the more advanced VoiceXpress Plus. The latter is specifically tailored to Microsoft Word, allowing users to access via natural language commands all functions of the popular word processor.
The basic VoiceXpress product will be priced below $100. Pricing for VoiceXpress Plus has not been set. L&H is also planning specific versions of the software for other often used applications such as Excel and Powerpoint, as well as versions for other languages such as German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Dutch.
L&H also demonstrated a device no larger than a standard pager, capable of receiving and storing up to 30 voice messages of 20 seconds each, as well as serving as a standard alphanumeric pager. This is accomplished with new technology that compresses human speech to a data stream of no more than 600bps - a more than 100fold compression, the company claims.
The prototype voice pager demonstrated at Comdex was developed jointly with NDC Voice and Oi Electronic, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi. The low bandwith requirements mean the product can function over existing alphanumeric pager infrastructure, L&H claims.
At its booth, L&H also previewed its forthcoming Web translation service. Users will be able, for a monthly fee, to have Web pages translated in real time between English and German or English and Spanish. Though other companies, such as Systran, are already offering similar services, L&H claims it goes beyond these by also being able to deliver - at extra cost - a better quality, human-made translation when the user requires this.
Another new L&H product showcased at Comdex was Madison, a Windows 95 'toolbar' that offers easily accessible text-to-speech capability, as well as the possibility to alert the user via voice messages of incoming mail in any MAPI mail application or of appointments entered in Microsoft Outlook. Madison will ship later this year and will be sold by Lernout & Hauspie's recently set-up L&H Direct service.
According to Bastiaens, the L&H speech technology will eventually be integrated into the Windows operating system. Bastiaens refused, however, to disclose a timing for this integration. He suggested it would be "technically feasible" to accomplish this within the Windows 98 timeframe, but said he doesn't expect this to happen as Microsoft is generally "quite conservative" about including new technology into its operating system.
In September, Microsoft announced that it was investing in the company, and now controls about eight per cent of the shares. Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products was started in 1987 in the Belgian village Ieper. The company is quoted on Nasdaq.
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