Vlingo’s Latest App Gives Blackberrying Thumbs a Rest

Cambridge, MA, startup Vlingo announced back in February that it had built its speech recognition software into Yahoo’s oneSearch mobile search portal. Thanks to that collaboration, users of Blackberry smartphones could speak search terms into their devices rather than having to type them using the keypad. It worked great in our tests. And now Vlingo’s taking the next step, offering free software that lets Blackerry owners use voice commands to do virtually anything they want with their phones, such as launching applications, dictating e-mails and text messages, searching the Web, and, of course, making calls.

The application, which is available for download here starting today, is designed only for the latest Blackberry models, including Curve, Pearl, and 8800-series devices. But Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan says the company is working on versions of the software for other smartphones, including Windows Mobile devices, the Apple iPhone, and eventually devices running Google’s Android mobile operating system.

“What our company is really about is solving both the discoverability and usability problems,” says Grannan. What he means is that the tiny screens and navigation buttons on mobile phones sometimes make it tricky to find and open the application you want, such as the address book or the text-messaging interface. Then, because many phones lack a full QWERTY keyboard, you have to double- or triple-type inside those applications to get anything done.

But using the new Vlingo interface, you can open an application just by holding down your Blackberry’s side button and speaking a command such as “Open address book.” Sending a text message is as easy as holding down the button and saying something like “Send message to Brian: Remember to pick up batteries on your way home.” And sending an e-mail is only slightly more complicated; you have to include some pointers for the software, thus: “Send e-mail to Brian, Subject: Batteries, Message: Be sure to pick up some fresh batteries at the store.”

You can’t yet use voice commands to do things like creating new address book entries or calendar appointments; Vlingo would have to work directly with the developers of those applications to make that possible. But that’s exactly what Grannan hopes will happen: Vlingo’s business rationale for giving away the Blackberry voice application is that giving smartphone users a taste of its convenience will inspire the companies that make those individual mobile applications to license Vlingo’s speech-recognition system for their own applications. “This is one step better than what we have done already with Yahoo oneSearch,” Grannan says. “But the Holy Grail is doing everything with voice.”

Vlingo is moving full-speed ahead with its product development plans in spite of the patent infringement lawsuit filed against the firm last week by Burlington, MA-based speech applications company Nuance Communications (NASDAQ: NUAN). Nuance says Vlingo’s technology for improving speech-to-text transcription over time—technology used in both the Yahoo oneSearch interface and the new Blackberry software—infringes on one of its own patents. Vlingo, for its part, says it’s using completely different technology. “It’s pretty black and white—the lawsuit is groundless, on the merits,” says Grannan. “They’re trying to bleed us to death and make our big customers nervous. What works in our favor is that Nuance has a history of doing this, and everyone knows it. It’s a business strategy for them.”

Vlingo loaned me a Blackberry Pearl so that I could play around with the voice application. For the most part, it works as advertised. And when it does run into difficulties getting the right transcriptions, it learns pretty quickly. In my case, the device had the ill fortune to be tested on some uncommon names and words. It had a tough time with “Wade”—when I commanded the phone to “call Wade” (i.e. my personal cell phone) it kept trying to call Grannan, since “Dave” sounds a little bit like “Wade” and his name was already programmed into the address book. After about four tries, with me correcting it each time, it understood.

The system does get a lot of messages right on the first try. For example, it had no problem with “I’m running out of cereal.” When I said “E-mail Wade, Subject: Battlestar Galactica, Message: I wish the next season wasn’t so far away,” it at least got the subject right. (The fact that it knows exactly how to transcribe “Battlestar Galactica” is undoubtedly a measure of how many sci-fi geeks like myself have been using Vlingo’s voice applications.) Unfortunately, the message itself came out a bit garbled—as the software was perhaps swayed by the earlier training I’d given it on my own name: “I wish text season wade so far away.”

And perhaps it’s mean of me to harp on it, but Vlingo still has a lot of trouble with one of our favorite words around here, “Xconomy.” After about six tries and corrections, it continued to make wretched guesses like “x connie” and “ex con me” and “text tommy.” So, Xconomy readers, a plea: Since the Vlingo system learns by aggregating audio samples and corrections from many users, we need you to help train it to recognize our name. If all of you Blackberry owners out there wouldn’t mind downloading the Vlingo software and spending 10 minutes speaking the word “Xconomy” into your device, then correcting the transcription as necessary, we’d be much obliged.

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