Speak & Spell: New Apps Turn Phones into Multimedia Search Appliances

12/5/08Follow @wroush

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speak an address or business name and see the location on a Google map, automatically call anyone in your contact list by speaking their name, or dictate a status update for your Facebook or Twitter account. The Blackberry version of Vlingo’s speech-recognition app, which has been out since June, goes even further, letting users dictate e-mail and text messages. I fully expect to see Vlingo’s engineers add such features to their iPhone app.

Vlingo iPhone AppBoth the Google Mobile app and the Vlingo app put an end to typing out search queries. But despite my general enthusiasm for these new voice-driven mobile search tools, I have to say that their speech-recognition algorithms still need work. Converting speech to text seems to be one of those problems, like building a foolproof A/V system for lecture halls, that experts are still going to be working on 30 years from now.

When I tried to speak the search term “Rahm Emanuel” into the Google Mobile app, the application came back with the transcriptions “roman manual,” then “robin manual,” then “brahmin manual.” (Thankfully, however, it got “Barack Obama” right the first time.) It fared a little better with “Xconomy,” one of the words I always like to use to torture speech-recognition systems, coming back first with “astronomy” and “taxonomy” and finally getting “Xconomy” on the third try. The Vlingo app got “Xconomy” right the first time—but I have a hunch that’s because the folks there knew I was evaluating the software.

The third mobile search tool I’ve been enjoying recently involves videos rather than voice. It’s WikiTap, an iPhone app released in September by Veveo, an Andover, MA-based startup I’ve covered several times. The app is a mobile-friendly mashup of Wikipedia and YouTube. Those two information sources might, at first blush, seem to blend about as seamlessly as Charlie Rose and Paris Hilton. But as it turns out, they go together remarkably well.

Veveo\'s WikiTap iPhone AppVeveo’s first mobile product was an “incremental search” tool called vTap, designed to make it easier to find the video you want on a mobile phone by narrowing down the list of possible matches as you type. WikiTap works the same way. To find the Wikipedia listing for my favorite film-score composer, Bernard Herrmann, I only had to enter “bernard h” and Herrmann popped up as the top match. But here’s the really cool thing about WikiTap: as soon as you click on a search result, the program brings up both the Wikipedia listing and related videos culled from YouTube and other sources. The videos presented alongside the Bernard Herrmann article, for example, included a YouTube slide show featuring Kim Novak, star of Vertigo, one of the many Hitchcock films Herrmann scored, and was followed by a video on the top 15 horror film themes of all time (Herrman’s music for Psycho, of course, topped the list).

I’ve found that leaping back and forth between Wikipedia text articles and related YouTube videos is a surprisingly fun way to kill a few hours. The pairing seems so natural that I now feel like there’s something missing when I visit Wikipedia on the conventional Web. There’s nothing new about the concept of multimedia reference works, of course—encyclopedia publishers like Britannica have been publishing CD-ROM and DVD-ROM versions of their content, spiced up with a few QuickTime videos, since the mid-1990s. But in these older works, the videos (which usually turned out to be clips from recycled 1960s educational documentaries) always felt to me like an afterthought—they were there more because the platform could support them than because anyone thought they were essential. WikiTap, like Wikipedia itself, is a gleefully crowdsourced hodgepodge where you never know quite what you’re going to find. The whole point is to make unexpected connections, and to see and hear things that you can’t understand just by reading about them.

And that’s the fun of the new mobile search applications in general: they lead you into experiences you never would have had otherwise. Which is part of the reason I’m still feeling like the money I put down for my iPhone 3G is the best $299 I ever spent.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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