Vlingo Sees Big Future in Searching Mobile Content and Enabling Functions On The Fly

Cambridge, MA-based Vlingo came out of stealth mode in 2007 with technology that enabled users to search and call businesses from their mobile phones, and ultimately sought to give users the power to use their voice for the mobile functions that previously required a keyboard.

But now it’s looking to go far beyond that, to turn the phone into a tool that can help users better complete tasks in the physical world, and to turn its app into a navigator for the troves of content that most phones hold. This year, Vlingo is working on making money off of the answers that its app helps turn up, and also diving deeper into the actions it assists users in completing.

On top of speech-recognition technology, Vlingo has layered what it calls an “intent engine” that extracts “what you mean and what you’re trying to do,” says Vlingo vice president of marketing Hadley Harris. It then translates that into an app that allows users to talk to their phones like they would a person (say, a personal assistant), and ti do things like text a co-worker, look up the a movie, make a dinner reservation, or even search and book hotels. (The latter three functions are possible thanks to recently announced integrations with Kayak, Fandango, and OpenTable.)

There are plenty of mobile apps already on the market, each focused on different functions, but Vlingo aims to cut through the clutter of those that users already have downloaded on their phones. In December it released an updated version of its Virtual Assistant App, which features an “ActionBar” that lives on a phone’s desktop, and that users can talk or type into, connecting them with the appropriate app that matches their desired function. The newest feature is available on Android, which Vlingo considers its “innovation platform,” but will be rolled out to the other operating systems it serves, including iPhone and Blackberry, says Harris.

“We feel this Virtual Assistant is the new way people will interact with the Internet,” he says.

He gave me a demonstration last week of the technology, which responded to voice command much more like a person than a machine. For example, you don’t have to just tell your phone to text a friend, but can say, “tell John Doe I’m running late,” and it knows to pull up the text function and type out that message. It also looks to mobile search engines when asked a question about tomorrow’s weather, or will display check-in results on Foursquare when asked something like “where are my friends?”

“We’re really trying to push that natural conversation user interface,” Harris says.

This year Vlingo is looking to dive deeper with the functions that Virtual Assistant can perform, on both the social and professional side, Harris says. For now, it allows users to update their statuses on Facebook. But the company intends to add sending messages, writing on friends’ walls, and posting pictures to the list of tasks users will be able to execute by talking to the phone. And there’s more in store for those looking to use Virtual Assistant to be more efficient at work. Vlingo expects to roll out features that enable the app to book an appointment with a colleague on your calendar (by syncing with his or her phone and tracking down a date when you both are free), again, all on voice command.

Vlingo is also tackling the problem of texting while driving (prohibited in scores of states), with its “InCar” mode for Virtual Assistant. The company’s app has a feature called “Vlingo Answers,” which offers answers on encyclopedia-style questions, thanks to content provided by partners Ask.com and True Knowledge. [Updated on 2/09/11 at 9:40am: Sentence updated for clarity.]

To date, Vlingo has made money through licensing its technology and charging for more enhanced versions of its mobile app (except the Android version, where the product is completely free). But it’s just started making money off the search results themselves, through sponsored links on Google or sponsored listings that appear as a result of functions like restaurant searches. It also gets a slice of services booked from its app through OpenTable, Fandango, and Kayak. These partnerships won’t shut out other competitors in their respective spaces, either, Harris says. (There’s a precedent for this openness; Vlingo has powered voice search for Bing, Yahoo, and Google.)

And speaking of Google, the Internet giant also has a competing voice-command technology, known as Voice Actions, that enables Android users to speak and perform actions like texting, map viewing, Google searches, and calling businesses. But Vlingo hasn’t seen any resistance from Google on that front, Harris says.

“Generally I think they like the fact that we’re innovating on their platform,” he says.

The company is tapping into new markets by adding new languages to its speech-recognition engine, and looks to expand to other devices like tablets or connected TVs this year. In December, Vlingo reaped an average of $0.14 per user per month, and expects this will hit $1.14 per month by 2014. (It just started monetizing these actions about five months ago). It might sound small now, but based on Wall Street predictions that 1.8 billion mobile search devices will be in use by 2014, the future looks pretty bright for Vlingo.

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