Nuance in position to challenge Siri

17 Oct 2011

Amid the hype of the iPhone 4S, the sad death of Steve Jobs and the buzz of how Siri will change everything again by rewriting the rulebook on how we interact with our mobile phones, another, no less significant alignment quietly took place.

Nuance - the company known for its text-to-speech and speech-to-text software - bought Swype, the fastest, most accurate way to input text on Android phones today. This was on 7 October, days after the launch of the iPhone 4S and Siri on the 4th.

Nuance already has in its stable T9, the much loved nine (plus one)-key text input method of a generation ago, and XT9, the predictive text input system that helps speed up data entry.

In other words, the company is quietly assembling all the pieces that would be needed for any type of man-machine interface. 3x4 numpad? That's covered. Touch-screen? Check. Voice? Sorted.

What Nuance also has in its arsenal is the ability to understand the spoken word. The company has enterprise solutions for call centres that can understand what is being said and can engage the customer to help guide them to their desired solution.

Indeed, the latest Audi A8's music system, where you can talk to the in-car entertainment system to give it orders to search for music or for addresses on the navigation system is all thanks to Nuance's software.

It also prides itself in mastering multiple languages at the same time, perfect for a German driving in France, listening to Italian music trying to navigate to an English person’s house.

Granted, most of its software needs a bit more horsepower than a typical mobile phone to run – for now – but the direction is clear. The company wants to position itself as the best interface between man and machine, whether that machine is a car, a self-service call centre application or a mobile phone.

In the seventies and eighties, the idea of talking to a computer and having it understand you was the ultimate fantasy. Can anyone remember Orac in Blake's Seven? Or how about the Knight Industries Two Thousand? Yesterday's science fiction is today's commercial fact.

Siri might be in the limelight right now, but it is far from the only game in town. Nuance has all the ingredients to do something big. Google already has a decent voice recognition system, one that takes a different approach and uses the cloud for recognition rather than the processing power within the handset itself. Then, one must not forget more niche projects such as that of HP's language labs in Bangalore that focuses on Sanskrit based languages to target a billion other non-English speakers.

The way we are interacting with the technology around us will soon undergo a paradigm shift. Now, to sit back and watch the magic happen.

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