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Researchers at ScanSoft, meanwhile, are putting speech recognition to use in cars. A car kit with a built-in microphone, speakerphone, and ScanSoft speech engine provides motorists with a hands-free interface for their cell phones. A phone equipped with a Bluetooth wireless transmitter can be placed anywhere in a car, and drivers can use voice commands to dial, accept or reject calls, adjust the volume, and control menu options, all without taking their hands off the wheel or their eyes off the road.

While the wireless industry has been the first to embrace speech recognition, makers of consumer electronics appear to be close behind. At the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, researchers are developing software that enlists speech to simplify the task of searching for information. Rather than scrolling through 10,000 MP3 songs on a handheld device, for instance, a user could select a single song just by saying its name – or that of a band or album. “We decided one of the things [speech] was good at was choosing,” says Mitsubishi speech technology researcher Peter Wolf.

Despite these advances, however, it remains to be seen how widely speech recognition will be adopted. Phone users may feel uncomfortable dictating personal e-mails in public. And they may always want keyboards for entering sensitive information such as credit card numbers. But Geruson predicts that the technology will eventually transform the way people use mobile devices. As a few early adopters take to the technology, he says, “it will catch on, and then it will be everywhere.”

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