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Editor’s note 8/06/02: Two corrections are noted at the end of this story.

When New York State banned using cell phone handsets while driving, motorists turned to hands-free phones-including those with voice-activated dialing. Unfortunately, there’s no voice-activated surfing to make a Palm Pilot as safe when checking directions at 65 miles per hour-at least not yet.

Speech-enabled handheld computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other similar devices should enter the marketplace in the next year or two if more than 50 vendors such as Philips Electronics N.V., Microsoft Corp., and Intel Corp. are correct. Their killer technology isn’t a new processor, operating system, or application. Instead, it’s a new standard that can voice-enable existing Web applications. But first they need to convince developers to revise applications using Speech Application Language Tags (SALT), pieces of code programmers can use industry-wide to implement new features into Web-based applications.
Up until now, the specifications for such code have been pretty limited. The existing standard, called Voice extensible markup language (VoiceXML), was originally designed for speech-only applications running over a telephone, says Rob Kassel, SpeechWorks International, Inc.’s product manager for emerging technologies and a proponent of the SALT standard. It was perfect for helping customers dial up to ask about their bank balances. It didn’t take into consideration the need for a Web browser.1

SALT proponents say the new standards will enable input and feedback in various formats and interfaces, which they call multi-modal. Say you’re on a business trip walking down an unfamiliar city street with your PDA, for example. “You can say, show me my current location,’” says Kassel. A SALT-enabled PDA with a global positioning system (GPS), a wireless Internet link, and the right application would quickly accomplish a number of things. First, through natural language processing, it would know to retrieve your GPS coordinates and forward them to a mapping Web site such as Mapquest or Yahoo! Maps. The PDA’s browser would then display a map of your location. Next, ask the PDA where your next meeting is and hear it recite the conference room number over the PDA’s speaker or through an earpiece. You can either dictate a new meeting for your calendar or write it in with a stylus.

SALT supporters like Kassel say handheld computers are just one application: The technology will work equally well for cell phones or PCs. Albert Kooiman, director of business development at Philips Speech Processing, imagines a SALT set top box that makes TV surfing much easier. “You’re wiped out. You can sit through the scroll of listings for 98 channels or you could just say: Are there any movies going on?’” he says.

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