Apple’s Boston-Area Team: Working on Speech in Nuance’s Backyard

7/26/13Follow @curtwoodward

It’s been one of the Boston-area tech industry’s more intriguing questions for months: Just what is Apple doing here?

Today, we’ve got an answer.

Apple has assembled a small team of notable names in speech technology and is looking to expand those efforts in the Boston area, industry sources tell Xconomy.

Based on their online job profiles, we can say that members of the Apple speech team here are working on Siri, the company’s voice-activated virtual assistant. Details beyond that are hard to come by, however, even for others in the field.

“They won’t tell us what they’re doing,” says Jim Glass, who heads MIT’s Spoken Language Systems Group. “We can only guess.”

Fittingly, the current Boston-area Apple speech team all once worked at VoiceSignal Technologies, a speech software company that was purchased for $293 million by Burlington, MA-based Nuance in 2007.

The group includes Gunnar Evermann, who stayed at Nuance for nearly four years before joining Apple in July 2011. Evermann previously worked for Apple in California, but moved back to the Boston area recently, helping to spark the company’s office in this area, sources said. His job is listed as “manager, Siri Speech.”

Evermann is joined by Larry Gillick, who was a vice president of research at Nuance after the VoiceSignal acquisition. More recently, he worked as a consultant and as chief scientist at EnglishCentral, a venture-backed online language instruction startup. Gillick’s job title at Apple is “chief speech scientist, Siri.”

Also on the team is Don McAllaster, listed as a senior research scientist who joined Apple in 2012. McAllaster has a long resume as a top research scientist with companies in the speech field, stretching back to Dragon Systems, where he also worked alongside Gillick.

News of Apple opening a Kendall Square office was first reported by The Boston Globe in January.

Although the Apple speech team here is small, its mere presence in the Boston area is notable for several reasons.

First of all, Apple hasn’t typically maintained many engineering teams far from its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, CA. And compared with rivals like Microsoft and Google, Apple doesn’t have a track record of focusing on in-house research of the type you might expect from hires like Gillick and McAllaster, who have spent years in speech technology research.

You’d have to imagine that sets off alarm bells at Nuance, which has traditionally supplied the speech-recognition technology inside Siri. By opening its own speech-technology office here—stocked with former Nuance employees, no less—Apple could be signaling a move away from relying on Nuance for Siri’s guts. (Nuance, as is its policy, declined comment on any partnerships or other companies.)

Such a move would make sense for Apple, a company that doesn’t like giving other companies the keys to critical software services.

One glaring example is Apple’s mobile mapping app, which the company deployed after having no answer for Google’s own market-leading maps for many years. Apple was so eager to make that switch that it substituted in-house mapping for Google’s version before the service was ready, resulting in many angry customers and a rare public apology.

With its own speech team here, Apple is also joining competitors Microsoft and Amazon in plumbing the area around MIT for talent.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that former MIT Lincoln Laboratory staffer TJ Hazen would be leading a new initiative at its NERD Center “to advance the state of the art in making all kinds of software easier, more natural and more intuitive to use, with a particular emphasis on speech and language processing capabilities.”

Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to hire people with some of the same speech-technology skills. Amazon is advertising for speech-tech talent in Cambridge as part of a multi-city R&D program whose “mission is to push the envelope in automatic speech recognition (ASR), natural language understanding (NLU), and audio signal processing.” The company has plenty of room to fill—according to real estate records, Amazon has a long-term lease on nearly 130,000 square feet of office space at 101 Main Street in Cambridge.

Now, it sounds like those programs will have to contend with the tech industry’s reigning king in the neighborhood.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Jessica Darko

    Sigh. Apple tried to buy Nuance a bit before they introduced SIRI. The rumor is Nuance wasn’t willing to sell, or it’s price was absurd. So, it shouldnt’ be surprising that Apple is building it’s own technology.

    It’s dishonest to say that Apple released Maps before it was ready. Maps was at the time of its release, and still is, far superior to Google’s Maps.

    The problem is, clueless reporters constantly look for things to bash Apple with and Maps gave them an opportunity to ignore the superiority of vector based maps compared to googles 1990s era tile system, and just harp on minor data problems. This produces click-bait headlines that are beneficial to advertising driven publications, the quality of the reporting be damned.

    Frankly, the ideologically driven smear campaigns that take the pro-google, anti-apple position only show the depths to which your profession has sunk.

    They are not an example of an error on Apple’s part. It is shameful that you are able to produce such negative propaganda that Apple “apologized” for an actually superior product.

    These are the facts, they are objective and cannot be disputed. When you lie about the facts like this, your lies reflect negatively on yourself.

    And you don’t fool anyone who has a clue.

    • just a passerby

      you mad bro?

      • handleym

        Jessica is correct. Harping over Maps is the sign of a person who insists on finding flaws no matter what, and if we can’t find flaws today, well, let’s resurrect the flaws of a year ago. To give just one example, Maps’ 3D view is more fluid and easier to use than either Google Earth or Street View and therefore (IMHO) more useful.

        But the larger point is that, even if Maps had a rocky start, by owning it Apple can add features Apple cares about which Google has not prioritized. The precise indoor location stuff added to iOS7 is an example of that. Think about what Maps COULD do but today does not do. Why don’t I have Maps show me the layout of a Mall? Why can’t I query Maps, when I’m in a store, where a certain section or product is?

        Similarly, while Apple TODAY is recreating voice recognition, the appropriate larger goal would be to create a strong Apple team for handling machine learning, which is going to be the future of some much new computing. That can only be done by hiring internal people, not by contracting out to Nuance, even if Nuance today has a better product.

    • harrisonweber

      LOL: Did apple put people in danger for its inaccurate maps? http://www.tuaw.com/2013/02/13/australian-firefighters-call-apple-maps-dangerous/

    • curtwoodward

      I’ll admit to not knowing anything about mapping apps on a technological level. But as a business and product matter, Apple’s maps app update was not a success. From Tim Cook’s apology for the product, which I linked to:

      “At Apple, we strive to make world-class products that deliver the best experience possible to our customers. With the launch of our new Maps last week, we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”
      and …
      “Everything we do at Apple is aimed at making our products the best in the world. We know that you expect that from us, and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard.”

      So that should not be in dispute.
      I’ll simply say that your assertions about ideologically driven smear campaigns and the like are incorrect as well, at least in my case. I happen to own all Apple hardware – aka, I’m not an Android fanboy or something.
      If I could invoke Robert’s Rules of Order you’d be gaveled down for impugning someone’s motives :)

      • airmanchairman

        You seem to forget that one of the chief architects of Mac OS X/iOS and core lieutenant of the late Steve Jobs either resigned or lost his job in the wake of that apology, which he reportedly refused to go along with. That public statement of the Apple CEO, while conciliatory in its intention, merely reinforced the lie that the anti-Apple smear campaign was propagating on every available media source.

        And if you do not believe the existence of the campaign, which extends well beyond journalism and into the world of finance and share speculation, I suggest you widen your news and Web RSS feed sources beyond their obviously narrow confines.

        • KenC

          I don’t have an opinion about your points. But I do object to your snarky tone. You should be able to disagree without casting aspersions.

    • Walt French

      @Jessica Darko said, “Maps was at the time of its release, and still is, far superior to Google’s Maps.”

      Afraid that’s a bit too much of a blanket statement for me. Apple’s Maps is decidedly inferior for anybody who wants either a good walking route or public transit information — neither of which is in the product today at all.* It just isn’t in the race, so can’t be said to be superior.

      I won’t debate the plusses and minuses of the two for driving, or locating a store within a mall, for instance; others can cite many one way or the other. I just think it’s not honest — your complaint — to say one is obviously superior when it doesn’t even include some important features.

      * From the WWDC demo, iOS7 and/or Mac Maps may have walking info, as it was demo’d how much in advance to notify somebody to walk to lunch. I’m looking forward to it.

      • mdelvecchio

        Walt – Maps has had walking directions from its launch date. it is only public transport it’s lacking. not sure how you’ve missd this for so long?

        also at the time of its release, Maps’ vector based solution *was* superior to the google maps tile-based nature. the new google maps app didn’t come out with vector UI until after Maps.

        • airmanchairman

          Correct. I am thinking that what Jessica missed out was the phrase “on the iOS platform”, which is likely what she meant: that Apple’s current Maps offering is much better than the Google-sourced and deliberately hindered equivalent prior to iOS 6.

        • Walt French

          Thanks. Yes, where I’ve needed guidance, I seldom need “instructions” for walking, just a decent map.

          The time it’d have been useful was a recent stay in Brooklyn, fairly close to several subway stops, and my destination was a few blocks from multiple stations. The Apple solution, which couldn’t integrate its walking and transit options, was dramatically inferior to Google’s (which wasn’t exactly great, as it misplaced a bus stop enough to steer me to the wrong one, and miss a bus).

          I like the extra speed and responsiveness that I presume the vector approach allows. But “nicer maps for many purposes” is poor compensation for “can’t actually assist you where you want to go when you really need it.”

          Which, again, Apple often doesn’t do as well as Google, making it far from “superior.”

    • Pete

      Jessica, this part of your comment:

      the superiority of vector based maps compared to googles 1990s era tile system

      is wrong. I remember the 1990s, and more specifically the web in the 1990s, and there wasn’t a great deal of tiling going on. Multimap for example (*shudder*). Google Maps was, in fact, a total, wonderful awe-inspiring revelation to developers like me at the time. “The time” in this case being 2005.

      While I agree that have a point, you are doing what you are blaming click-bait headline-writers for; that is, using tabloid-style emotionally-driven commentary rather than stating things in anything like a factual way.

      Indeed, there are further problems with your comment – your are conflating the fact that “vectors are better” (which while agree in this case, is not a simple statement of fact in itself) with “the product is superior”. Of course in reality, there are many use cases for apps like this, and each will serve different sets and different preferences better. Jumping from “vectors are better” to “the product is better” is guilty of many of the flaws you are blaming everybody else for.

      To take an example, I can access google maps from just about any connected platform: os x, ios, android, windows, linux, etc, etc. I can take my history, my saved data, and in fact all the usage strategies that I’ve developed with it, anywhere I go. Compared to the only-on-one-platform reality of Apple’s maps, I don’t think anyone can argue which is “superior” is terms of accessibility when away from your own device / platform.

  • Relentlessfocus

    Apple has never been a company which relies on others to supply their core technologies. Maps is an example of where google was able to put pressure on Apple by not agreeing to move the antiquated bit mapped maps product google was supplying to vector based mapping unless Apple gave Google access to user data, something Apple refused to do. Apple knew it was going to take a hit on accuracy with its own fledgling product and launched maps anyway. Nuance must be aware that Apple would not be beholden to them long term, but the straight financial deal is a short term win-win. As Siri is a key Apple technology it only stands to reason that Apple wants to control the whole process.

  • James Coplien

    Conspiracy theorists would say that it is for some kind of NSA support. (Might as well post something in line with stale headlines.)

  • asdfasdf

    Vlingo was acquired by Nuance and was located in Cambridge too. Vlingo was a virtual voice assistant startup.

  • fammtamm

    That actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

    Only-Anon.tk

  • uximalik
  • cactustweeter

    I’m sure Nuance knows about the Apple VR R&D team working in their backyard. My hope is that it puts some urgency into Nuance so they improve their VR products like Dragon Dictate for Mac. Nuance has treated the Mac platform like the redheaded stepchild and kept the Mac product lacking features their Windows product does not.

  • uximalik
  • mony1
  • Mona Ali