Surfing the Web without a browser? L&H, known for its dictation and text-to-speech products, on Tuesday demonstrated upcoming technology that allows users to talk to the Internet - and have it talk back.
At a press conference at the Comdex show on Tuesday, L&H demonstrated a number of new products as well as offering a glimpse of new Internet technology.
In a demonstration, the user asked his computer (in spoken English): "What's the weather like in New York?" There was an almost instant response, in a very natural sounding female English voice.
The demo used L&H's natural language understanding technology to grasp the user's question, then went out on the Web to find the information and read it out using a new text-to-speech system.
Because the system does not bother to download the images from the Web sites it consults, it can come back with almost instant responses, said L&H president and CEO Gaston Bastiaens.
The technology is expected to be embedded in products by the middle of next year, said Bastiaens.
At Comdex, L&H is launching a consumer oriented version of its successful dictation technology, L&H Now You're Talking Deluxe. As well as (English language) dictation, the package also offers a set of speech enabled, speech activated utilities such as a speaking clock and calculator and a basic scheduler. The software also allows users to control the basic operations in Office 95 and 97 by voice.
Now You're Talking Deluxe requires a 166MHz Pentium with MMX and 48Mbytes of Ram. It will sell for $99.95.
L&H also introduced Talking Max, a speech enabled Tamagotchi-like virtual parrot that will resell for $29.95.
Natural language technology for the PC and consumer devices has been around for some years, without ever really hitting the mainstream. But at this year's Comdex, the sheer number and increased quality of products, as well as the lower pricing, suggests that a breakthrough may be imminent.
Competitors such as IBM (with its Viavoice technology) and Dragon are also demonstrating their wares at Comdex.
"What sets us apart is that we are way ahead of the field in natural language understanding," said Bastiaens. "Computers have to start understanding what people say, not just recognise speech."
L&H, which formerly went by the somewhat more unwieldy name of Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products, is a Belgian company traded on the Nasdaq exchange. Microsoft is a minority shareholder.
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