New Speech Recognition Engine Under the Hood at Vlingo; Startup Dumps IBM and Nuance for AT&T

Vlingo, the Cambridge, MA-based startup that makes a suite of speech-to-text applications used by millions of iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia mobile device owners, is about to get a brain transplant of sorts. It said today that it will largely abandon a core speech-recognition engine developed by IBM and maintained by Nuance Communications in favor of a system from AT&T Labs in New Jersey.

As part of the shift, says Vlingo CEO Dave Grannan, Vlingo and AT&T have agreed to a long-term strategic alliance. Vlingo’s speech scientists will be able to modify and improve the source code for the AT&T technology, called Watson, while AT&T will take a minority ownership stake in Vlingo. All of Vlingo’s applications will be running on top of the AT&T speech-recognition system by the first quarter of 2010, Grannan says.

Vlingo’s own speech scientists have developed software that exploits information collected from users—the way a Bostonian’s pronunciation of a dictated phrase like “I parked my car” might differ from a New Yorker’s, for example—to build statistical models that help improve speech-recogition accuracy over time. These models provide supplemental input that helps to guide a core speech-recognition engine as it transforms speech sounds into text. Vlingo didn’t build its own core engine—it has long licensed that part of its system from IBM.

The switch from IBM’s engine to AT&T’s is a “best of all worlds” situation for Vlingo, in Grannan’s words. For one thing, he says, the Watson technology simply works better than the IBM recognizer. “Watson is superior on speed and base-level accuracy,” he says. Once the transition is complete, users of Vlingo’s iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia apps should notice fewer wrong guesses in the transcriptions of their utterances. Grannan says they’ll also see a few new features, such as automatic punctuation, that Vlingo can now add because it will be able to tinker with Watson’s innards.

But just as important, the switch will help Vlingo disentangle itself from its strained relationship with Nuance.

Burlington, MA-based Nuance (NASDAQ: NUAN) is one of the Boston area’s biggest high-tech firms, and it is the world’s largest specialized provider of speech-related technologies. It offers software for mobile speech recognition that competes directly with Vlingo’s. In June 2008, after losing out to Vlingo on a contract to supply Yahoo with speech-recognition technology for its oneSearch service, Nuance hit Vlingo with a lawsuit alleging that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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