Voice recognition for cellphone Web searches is evolving

ByEdward C. Baig, USA TODAY
February 12, 2009, 1:09 AM

— -- The mobile Web provides many of the riches available to folks who surf from a PC. But searching for cyberpearls on tiny cellphone keyboards or touch-screens is challenging.

That's where mobile voice search comes in. I've been testing services from Google, Yahoo and start-ups ChaCha and Vlingo. They all let you seek information by merely asking out loud.

You may wonder if your flight is on time, what the weather will be when you get there or where to get dinner. Or you might want to settle a bet at a bar. What was Yogi Berra's career batting average? What's the safest SUV? What is absolute zero?

I posed these and other questions to test the services. Answers are supplied in different ways. With Google, you'll get links to Web pages. ChaCha, my favorite among these, relies on human beings to respond. Company "guides" surf on your behalf and text the answers within a few minutes.

Mobile search by voice isn't new, but it's rapidly evolving, and in many instances takes advantage of location-based information. In some instances, you can combine voice search with other capabilities, perhaps by summoning maps.

Google voice search is just now arriving on the T-Mobile G1 Android phone as part of a major software rollout. A version is already on the iPhone. And this week, Yahoo expanded its OneSearch with Voice offering beyond certain Nokias and BlackBerrys (I tested on a Pearl) by adding the capability to some Windows Mobile phones. Indeed, some voice search offerings work only on specific handsets. ChaCha works pretty much across the board.

None of the services are flawless. Half the battle is recognizing the question. The timbre of your voice, surrounding noises and cell coverage all have an impact. Brevity often sufficed. It was typically enough to say, "Weather, Aspen" or "American Airlines Flight 972" to get a forecast or flight status.

Assuming the question is understood, you expect prompt, meaningful and useful results. My experience was mixed. A closer look:

•Doing the ChaCha. ChaCha is addictive, because you feel compelled to ask just about anything and more often than not get a decent reply. "What has more calories, peas or carrots?" (It's peas.)

You call 1-800-2ChaCha from any text-capable mobile phone. I used the G1 and the iPhone. There's a limit of 20 calls a month. ChaCha is free, though standard text-messaging rates apply. Texted answers include a short advertisement. You can wait up to five minutes for an answer, though two minutes was more typical.

Having human guides — there are more than 55,000 (I asked) — seems to increase the likelihood that your question will be understood. So even though ChaCha's voice recognition thought I asked about "Yogi Bear's" batting average, ChaCha delivered the stats for Berra.

But humans have foibles, too. My question, "When is the last Acela train from New York to Washington, D.C.?" was heard as when is the last "acelitrade SP" to "Worthington DC." The guide was stumped. Sometimes you'll get a text asking you to clarify or add detail to ambiguous questions.

ChaCha incorporates location based on your area code and first three digits of your phone number. You can specify another location.

•Google. I tested Google's voice search on the iPhone and the G1. On the latter, you tap a little microphone icon and start speaking. On the iPhone, you merely lift the phone to your ear, wait for a little sound, and then start talking. Either way, you don't have to tap or do anything special when you stop talking.

For the most part, Google delivered meaningful results when it heard the question correctly. Alas, the voice recognition on both devices was poor. "Find show times for Slumdog Millionaire was heard as "Sunsight times for slim dust cleaner."

•Vlingo. I tested the free Vlingo app on an iPhone (there's also a BlackBerry version). Tap a button to begin speaking and tap again when done. Vlingo uses Google or Yahoo as its search engine, whichever you prefer. It does more than search. Among other things, you can use Vlingo to modify your Facebook or Twitter status by voice. The speech-recognition part was pretty good. But "32nd president" was detected as "30-second president." Fortunately, Vlingo knows its limitations. I had the option to tap on a "did you say 32nd president" alternative.

•Yahoo. Vlingo supplies the underlying technology to Yahoo's OneSearch with Voice. On the Pearl, I had to press and hold a key for the entire time I was asking a question. Voice recognition was solid, and Yahoo does a decent job of presenting results in clustered categories. On my safest SUV query, I got links to Wikipedia (an entry on Volvo), as well as sites, images and opinions offered by regular people in Yahoo Answers. But my Aspen weather query gave me a bunch of useless sites, when all I wanted was a quick forecast. Yahoo just added location smarts to mobile search. So I found show times in my neighborhood for Slumdog just by mentioning the movie title. Unlike Vlingo, OneSearch didn't offer an alternative suggestion when it made the same "30-second president" mistake.

Voice search is still in its infancy and should continue to get better. This isn't the last word.

E-mail: ebaig@usatoday.com

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