Earlier this week, I attended the annual SpeechTek conference in New York City. SpeechTek is one of the biggest conferences about speech technologies,with a strong commercial focus. The exhibition hall was relatively small — perhaps 30-40 booths — but apparently bigger than before. I was there to attend and to speak at the “speech for the developing world” session organized by Debbie Dahl, where i presented the VOICES project as well as the VBAT project.
Globally, I’ve to say that I was a bit disappointed. In the commercial part of speech technologies, there is very little interest on the use of voice technologies for underprivileged communities. I had the impression that none of the firms there consider developing countries as a market with big potential. It seems that the current market for speech technologies is still expanding quickly with more and more devices needing such technologies (car systems, navigation systems, etc), and therefore companies are focusing on the developed-world market. This is a huge difference compared to e.g. mobile operators whose revenues are declining quickly in western countries and are trying to find new opportunities.
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Lots of people I talked to found our stories exciting, even incredible. However, few were really interested in investing further the opportunities. The session in which I presented was along these lines, with a small number of attendants only (15-20).
That said, it was still worth my time. First of all, it is essential to drop some seeds in the domain. It is essential that major actors of the domain understand the need to extend further the technology to fit with the needs and requirements of people living in underprivileged communities. It is also essentials to raise awareness of the limit of cloud-based approach in places where bandwidth is a problem, in terms of size but also in terms of stability.
It was also a great opportunity for networking and grab information here and there. I had long chat with different people from Voxeo. I have to say that I’m impressed by the amount of resources and free services this company is offering: free voiceXML hosting, free downloadable Voice Browser, free support, free APIs (see e.g. Tropo, Phono). Our project pilots ( VBAT, VOICES), and our training programs (e.g. Mobile Entrepreneurs in Ghana) are exploiting these resources. So it was good to meet some of their engineers and get some geeky answers to some of the issues we are experiencing. It was also a good opportunity for me to link with the VoiceXML Forum, and we will explore further potential synergies on how to promote the use of VoiceXML vs more proprietary option (see my past post on VoiceXML vs Proprietary software).
So all in all, I have mixed feelings. Hopefully, over the next year, the interest for the use of Voice services in underprivileged communites will grow.
PS: and as always when I go tot the US in summer, I had a free gift: a darned severe cold due to the inability of these big hotels to manage properly their air conditioning system, where you have 35 deg Celsius outside, and 18c inside !!