Some 10,000 people worldwide use a version of the Web like no other: it is operated by voice over the telephone. Called the “Spoken Web,” it is the result of an IBM research project attempting to re-create the features and functions of the text-based World Wide Web for people with low levels of literacy and technical skills.
Four years since the first prototype was released, the spoken Web is part of everyday life for users in four Indian states and parts of Thailand and Brazil. These people use it to learn of things such as local grain prices or job opportunities. On the spoken Web, telephone numbers replace Web addresses. A person can call in to a voice site and listen to or record content.
Now the project is going through a developmental stage that mirrors part of the regular Web’s history: the debut of search as a way to navigate a growing body of content.
“As the number of voice sites grows, and they get more content, people need a way to find what they want quickly,” says Nitendra Rajput, a senior researcher with IBM Research India. Rajput was an early collaborator on the spoken Web with project founder Arun Kumar.
A voice site has some structure: for example, a person who calls in to upload a site will interact with an automated telephone system that accepts voice commands and prompts the user to create a title and add sections of different information. However, listening to long voice messages is inefficient and costly, says Rajput.
“We want you to be able to speak a pesticide name, for example, to quickly find content about that,” he says. But designing a search engine that works that way is far from simple. Though voice-recognition technology can be used to take a person’s search term and match it against a previously processed index of recorded voice sites, presenting the results is a challenge. “We can’t have it read out a list of 20 results. It would take too long, and people would not remember them all,” says Rajput. “Instead it [must] tell the user it has that many, and ask how to narrow them down.”
The user is asked which categories they wish to filter the results by—for example, by the name of the person who owns the site, the place it was created, or whether the search term was found in a section of a particular type, for example announcing news, or asking or answering a question. This step is repeated until there are five or fewer results, at which point they are all read out to the user who can choose which they want to “browse” to.