Speech recognition took a small step forward last week when four companies announced that they had formed a V-Commerce Alliance to promote the technology for electronic commerce.
Visa International and two technology companies with strong ties to the financial services industry - Broadvision Inc. and Nuance Communications - joined Motorola Inc. in the alliance.
Its goal is to help create and deploy standards and applications to integrate telephone and Internet systems so conumers can tap into the World Wide Web by speaking instructions into a telephone.
"V-commerce builds on all the benefits of electronic commerce and makes them easy and accessible to everyone," said Ronald Croen, president and chief executive officer of Nuance, which provides speech recognition software for Charles Schwab & Co. and Fidelity Investments.
The alliance members demonstrated a variety of uses of V-commerce at the Internet World conference in New York last week.
Robert Wenig, director of advanced technologies at SAP Labs Inc., asked by telephone which of his orders totaled about $15,000. The answer, produced by a Web search, came over the phone.
But it was clear that broad-based searches, such as a request for all the news of the day, were cumbersome via telephone.
A downside of speech recognition was evident when Elmer Baldwin, president and chief executive officer of World Network, tried to order an airline ticket. He said several times that he wanted to leave at noon, but the system kept responding that he said 10 a.m. Also, some demonstrators had to repeat their requests several times before being understood.
"It can be frustrating and irritating," said Octavio Marenzi, research director at Meridien Research Inc., one of several observers who said the technology is not yet up to speed.
Chase Manhattan Corp. has set up several internal pilots of speech recognition and expects to experiment with V-commerce in 1999, said Michael Mazza, vice president of information technology and operations.
Visa, which made an equity investment in Nuance in 1995 and has a close relationship with BroadVision, a developer of on-line customer relationship software, plans to launch several speech-based services next year. Customers could call in and ask the location of the nearest automated teller or activate their credit cards, said Todd Chaffee, executive vice president.
Sandra Vaughan, vice president of marketing for BroadVision, said speech recognition would allow financial institutions to integrate their call centers and home banking applications. The company expects to develop V- commerce-enabled products next year.
Patrick Rooney, assistant vice president of operations for Intrust Bank in Wichita, Kan., said integrating Web and telephone systems makes sense.
His bank is among the few using biometric customer identification based on voice patterns over the phone. A couple hundred of people have signed up for the year-old program. But Mr. Rooney said he doubts Intrust would implement speech recognition before 2000.
Charles Schwab uses Nuance to let customers trade mutual funds and obtain quotes by speaking into the telephone. The company is investigating V-commerce but "it is difficult to say how it would improve" Schwab's offerings, said Bob Wohlsen, technical director in its voice technology solutions group.
Douglas Andersen, research manager for PSI Global, said some Web pages cannot be translated for speech recognition. Browsing the Web by phone would pose difficulties, though ordering or searching for a specific item is feasible, he said.
"We have to see where it goes," Mr. Andersen said. "There have been a lot of interesting ideas that have just sat around and not gone anywhere. The question is whether people will adopt it."