You Talk, It Checks on Your Laundry?

Imagine if your telephone could tell you how late the downtown bus would be, what floor of the parking garage had open spaces, or how long before the laundry machine in your building would be free to use. Students at Wake Forest University who volunteered to be early testers for a MobileU project don't have to imagine.

"Last year, I would lug my laundry down three floors to my dorm's basement only to discover that all the machines were in use," said Rob Laughter, a sophomore from Roaring River, N.C., who is studying psychology and communications. Now Laughter triggers a Web site and checks on the washing machines' availability by speaking into a Web-enabled cell phone.

"The phone can also track the position of the campus shuttle and let me know if it's going to be on time or how late it's running," he said.

Laughter volunteered for "technology quarters," part of the university's themed housing where students are exposed to cutting-edge innovations like automated lighting and ovens that defrost, roast, and keep a turkey warm all while the student is at class.

"It's exciting to be an early tester and helping to pioneer the technologies of the future. We have quarterly meetings, surveys, and communicate all the time through a listserv [e-mail group] where we can get help and give feedback to each other," he said.

Wake Forest is a private, liberal-arts university in Winston-Salem, N.C., that is considered a technological leader as far as university life is concerned. Since 1996, all 2,000 entering freshmen receive a portable computer, and they turn it in for a new laptop during their junior year. Wireless Internet access is also available inside and outside of the classroom.

IBM and Wake Forest have been running MobileU this semester to demonstrate speech-enabled Web applications on portable smart phones. The student talks into the device, and the device does what he or she says. No need to punch in keys.

A Learning Tool

Jay Dominick, the university's vice president for information services, said participation in the program added to the student's education.

"Asia Pacific students are already well ahead of U.S. students when it comes to using mobile technology because of the advanced infrastructure overseas," he said. "This initiative will aid in the parity with the Asian graduates. It gives our students a glimpse at what the future will be like and prepares them for their careers in an increasingly mobile world."

The project uses IBM's multimodal technology -- meaning many input and output sources like voice, keyboard and handwriting -- that can interface the spoken word with portable devices like phones and car-navigation systems to return useful information in real time using a global positioning system and Web servers that already have the data accessible.

As device sizes shrink, it becomes more difficult to peck away at the keyboard to get the current information users need. It's a lot more intuitive to speak commands into a phone, so the goal is to make getting information -- like the closest theater showing your favorite movie -- easy to receive in an instant.

"Nobody will look at you like you are strange for speaking into your phone. It's natural," said Igor Jablokov, program director for the IBM division running the project. "Without speech, the Web would be practically useless on mobile phones."

The conveniences and efficiency are translating into the workplace, too.

A similar test to MobileU is being done at Miami's Children's Hospital and is estimated to save doctors an hour and a half per day. Surgeons retrieve real-time lab results and operating-room availability by speaking into their phones instead of waiting on hold or trekking through the hospital for the same information.

Improved Speech Recognition

IBM says that speech recognition has gotten a bad rap over the years because of early incarnations that required endless training and computer processors that were too weak to analyze dialects and other subtle differences in sounds. It now says it has truly useful technology right out of the box.

The latest release of ViaVoice has eliminated the need to memorize specific commands, making speech recognition a lot more like a conversation and a lot less like speaking to a McDonald's drive-through operator who can't understand the difference between super size and no fries.

Instead of "Radio 95.5 FM," car passengers can now get the same results by using the phrases, "Set the radio to 95.5," "Change the radio station to 95.5," or "Tune to 95.5."

Today, you can buy a Honda with IBM Embedded ViaVoice navigation that understands 700 commands and responds to your request for a local Mexican restaurant with directions, the average entrée price, the ambiance, and whether the joint is known for large margaritas.

But nobody wants to ask his or her car for a pizza parlor and end up at a hair salon.

"The accuracy is now north of 99 percent," Jablokov said. "This is a brand-new ViaVoice application that was designed from the ground up to work immediately with no need for training."

Laughter agreed that speech recognition had improved.

"I used speech recognition on my laptop last year for a term paper, and I had to stop to correct it every three or four words. So far, the phone has not made any mistakes for me or my roommate who uses it all the time," he said.

Spreading the Word

IBM plans to expand the MobileU implementation to other campuses adding pay-by-phone services, and access to listen to e-mail, datebook and contact information as Wake Forest has plans to get the phones into the hands of more staff and faculty next year.

"We would like to get these smart phones into the hands of every student and faculty on campus. Wake is a mobile messaging-centric campus. The rollout to the first 100 students has been successful," spokesman Jay Dominick said. "The real barrier to entry right now is with the many phone carriers in our area. There is the challenge of users porting their personal cell phone numbers and the cost of the data plan expenses."

The Siemens PDA phones the students use for the pilot do not use cell phone airwaves to communicate with the laundry machines or the shuttle bus. The voice commands interact with a Web browser on the phone that sends and receives data on a different band the way a BlackBerry sends and receives e-mail messages. The process will not eat up cell phone minutes, but requires a separate data plan.

But don't users just loathe talking to machines?

"Our students are in the 18-22 demographic that adopt new technologies early on. They are more willing to try new ways to communicate, and they continue to introduce the technologies into their careers and some continue to innovate and make them easier to use. Especially in the mobile market. Text messaging is second nature to the students," Dominick said.

Laughter, who is also a newspaper photographer, runs a college entertainment Web site. He doesn't leave home without his PDA, personal cell phone, and Dell DJ music player. He sees the value in the project.

"It's a technology that I would recommend to other classmates. Both my parents are technological newbies, but when I showed them what the phone could do even they were blown away."

But with an audible wink that only a child of the computer age might understand, he added: "They probably wouldn't be able to figure out how to use it. You know how parents are."