Trials involving 40 farmers in the Indian state of Gujarat validated this design, which is to be rolled out across the whole spoken Web. More features that aid navigation of content are needed, though. As the spoken Web grows, it becomes important to find more ways to aid navigation of content, says Rajput, just as similar mechanisms have been developed on the text-based Web.
Another improvement in the works provides a way to skim through voice sites. Users can already use a fast-forward function to hear a site at increased speed—the feature goes at 10 times normal speed, rendering words too fast to make out, but it slows down for certain important words or phrases. The effect is similar to skim-reading a text out loud, says Rajput, and it allows users to very rapidly find what they want.
The researchers think the system could learn which words or phrases are important by looking at which particular phrases lead users to switch from fast-forward to normal reading speed. “We are currently collecting the statistics from the users we have in order to know which words are important,” says Rajput.
“So many people in the world have no idea how to use the Web or even to understand the text on it,” says Naushad UzZaman, a researcher at the University of Rochester in New York. “Although you cannot remove the digital divide, making it possible to get the benefits of the Web by voice is an example of how we can narrow it.”
UzZaman says technology should ideally be able to create a path that connects people with low iteracy skills to at least some of the wider Web’s features. He has prototyped a system that digests online text into much simpler sentences that convey the same essential meaning. Images are placed alongside the text to help users get the gist. A prototype works well when tested on Wikipedia pages, says UzZaman.
Rajput says that for now, IBM’s spoken Web is completely separate from the World Wide Web, and that most users are mainly interested in local concerns. However, that could change. “If there is relevant information on the real Web, we can pull it in to the spoken Web using API calls and text-to-speech technology,” says Rajput. “But it needs to be converted to the correct language, and support for that is not good outside U.S. English.”
Hear more from IBM at EmTech 2014.