Calorie Count, owned by The New York Times, Taps Technology from Startup iSpeech
When New York-based website Calorie Count wanted a way to set its app apart from the competition, co-founder and vice president Igor Lebovic literally talked up its latest feature. Calorie Count’s iPhone app uses speech-recognition technology supplied by iSpeech, a startup in Newark, NJ, to help dieters keep track of what they eat.
While demonstrating Calorie Count’s new feature at the NY Tech Meetup on Sept. 6, Lebovic described a meal aloud, and the app counted the calories. He says Calorie Count leveraged iSpeech’s technology to distinguish itself from rivals, who also provide calorie tracking apps and websites. “We believe that voice is a vastly underrated way of interacting with the Internet,” Lebovic says. He believes voice technology will find its way into more Web-based activities such as posting comments or drafting blog entries.
Heath Ahrens, CEO of four-year-old iSpeech, says his company is one of the few independents left in the speech-technology market, and he’s always looking for innovative ways to collaborate with others. Ahrens is out to make his mark in an industry dominated by the likes of giant Nuance Communications in Burlington, MA, which acquired smaller rivals Loquendo in Italy in August and Switzerland’s SVOX in June.
Lebovic says tapping iSpeech’s technology was part of an overall effort to shorten the steps necessary to use the Calorie Count app. Lebovic says counting calories can be work-intensive and finding ways to speed up the process may keep dieters committed to his service. “Whenever we made a feature that cut down the time to record everything you eat, our usage grew accordingly,” he says.
Calorie Count—which was acquired by The New York Times Co. in 2006 and made part of information portal About.com—is also experimenting with using cameras on smartphones to identify foods as a premium service. Lebovic says Calorie Count, which has a team of 12, is much like a startup within About.com. Calorie Count’s staff spends one day a week operating out of the New Work City co-working space in the SoHo district. “We present to [About.com] the next day what we’ve done,” Lebovic says.
Calorie Count released the first version of the speech-enabled iPhone app in August and will launch an Android version later this month. The original Calorie Count app was released in April 2010. Calorie Count chose iSpeech’s technology in part because its team impressed Lebovic with a novel approach to marketing. iSpeech provides its technology at no charge most of the time—an effort to increase the company’s visibility, Ahrens says “We give away our technology for free as long as we don’t need to tweak it,” he says.
Founded in 2007, iSpeech was born from Ahrens’s desire for way to listen to course material while on his way to class at Rutgers University. The company’s offers text-to-speech and speech recognition technology to iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry app developers. Some of iSpeech’s own apps include Caller ID Reader, which reads the names of incoming callers while the user is driving or otherwise occupied.
Ahrens says iSpeech is profitable and the company has access to outside backing but he declined to reveal details. “We haven’t had to tap into that funding,” he says.
Ahrens says his company provides technology to clients who might not be able to afford the services of a large player such as Nuance. “We have very small market share in speech-technology industry,” he says, “but we’re working to open up new industries.” Ahrens foresees speech-recognition technology being integrated in more types of devices to allow, for example, a user to adjust the temperature in their home by speaking commands into a smartphone.
Anyone can use iSpeech’s technology and Ahrens prefers it that way. In addition to Calorie Count, iSpeech’s speech recognition technology can be found in Car and Driver‘s Txt U L8r app. Text messages received by a driver in a car are read aloud by the app, which automatically responds to the senders. iSpeech developed a similar app, DriveSafe.ly, which also reads and responds to text messages.
Ahrens says iSpeech works with companies of any size, though fellow startups are more likely to implement iSpeech’s technology faster than large companies, which may have lengthy approval processes. “When we work with a startup, we know a product will be on the street in a few months,” he says.