NOVATO, Calif - A small technology company in California is betting that the time has come for bankers to put computers in their trading rooms that understand spoken words.
The company, Umecorp, based in Novato, this year has started trying to sell one of the only prepackaged computer systems available that lets traders record deals by speaking into their computers.
So far, six financial institutions, including banks, have agreed to start testing the Umevoice computer system by year-end, said Umecorp president and chief executive Adithya M. R. Padala.
Mr. Padala declined to name the companies. But he predicted that Umevoice will anchor high-growth business for Umecorp, which is privately held and employs fewer than 20 people.
"We're growing rapidly now, and we expect tremendous growth in the future," Mr. Padala said.
Technology that lets computers understand spoken words has been around for more than a decade.
But use of the voice recognition technology has been confined mostly to narrow niches - translating notes spoken by scientists and doctors into computer text, recording into computer files the comments of helicopter mechanics, and letting people accept or decline a telephone call by saying yes or no to a telephone company computer.
In the financial industry, voice recognition has been tested by a couple of banks for telephone banking.
The idea is that voice recognition systems that understand when people say digits and simple words like yes and no could be a useful way to bring telephone banking to rural areas where touch-tone telephones are not widely available.
Some trading companies, including Nomura Securities Co. and Lehman Brothers Inc., have let dozens of traders use voice recognition systems to record trades in bond and foreign exchange markets.
But use of voice recognition technology in trading rooms, and other applications is still minimal.
Acceptance has been constrained by the tendency of voice recognition systems to misunderstand what people say, and the high cost of the technology.
But as personal computers and Unix workstations get more powerful and less expensive, and technicians continue to make voice recognition systems more reliable, many technology experts expect acceptance of the voice recognition to rise markedly.
Personal computer software and hardware companies are already capitilizing on this trend, by bringing to market cards and software that, for only a few hundred dollars, can let personal computer users verbally instruct their computers to change the type font on a word-processing document, or to run a spreadsheet calculation.
Technology costing only a few thousand dollars is coming to market that lets people speak to their computers to input text for memos, newspaper articles, and word-processing documents.
Lehman a Pioneer
Umecorp hopes to carve out a niche in the fast-paced, hectic trading world, where the benefit of using voice recognition to record multimillion-dollar deals more accurately. and faster, could be tremendous.
Lehman pioneered this use of voice recognition technology in the late 1980s, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to configure what by today's standard is obsolete voice recognition technology to work in a trading room.
While Lehman's system has since been upgraded, Umecorp hopes to eliminate the need to do custom engineering work.
Umevoice comes complete with software that makes voice recognition technology built by leaders in the market - including Verbex Voice Systems Inc., of Edison, N.J., and International Business Machines Corp. - work in trading rooms.
Larry Dooling, Verbex's president and chief executive, said that while technology companies in Australia and Asia have designed prepackaged voice recognition applications for trading rooms in their countries, Verbex is the only American technology company to do so in this country.
"I think they've done excellent work," Mr. Dooling said.