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Your Next Smartphone Could Respond to Your Voice, Even When It’s Asleep

A new feature in Qualcomm’s chips will let you wake your phone with a voice command so it can do your bidding. Now it just needs to learn to cook.
February 21, 2013

Imagine waking up in the morning, stretching, and asking your sleeping smartphone, “Ahoy, Google, what’s the weather like?” to get the local forecast.

A new feature unveiled this week by mobile chip maker Qualcomm could soon make this a reality. Called Snapdragon Voice Activation, it will wake up gadgets that include the company’s Snapdragon 800 processors—intended for things like high-end smartphones, tablets, and smart TVs—from standby or airplane mode once you’ve uttered a special voice command that phonemakers like HTC and Samsung can determine. The feature then starts up the phone’s own voice-recognition software, such as Android’s Google Now voice search.

Such “persistent listening” technology may pick up steam as growing hordes of smartphone owners become acquainted with voice-activated search and virtual personal assistants like Google Now and Siri, and as Qualcomm and others begin adding it to chips.

In addition to Qualcomm, a consumer speech technology company called Sensory announced this week the latest version of its TrulyHandsfree Voice Control technology, which can also wake a smartphone from slumber with a customized command, and a partnership with a chip maker. And late last year, Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer for speech-recognition software maker Nuance, said the company is working with “a number of” chip companies who are “thinking very actively” about how to make low-power persistent listening work (see “Even Sleeping Smartphones Could Soon Hear Spoken Commands”).

Norman Winarsky, vice president of ventures at SRI International, who helped turn DARPA-funded research at SRI International into the now Apple-owned virtual personal assistant Siri, expects this kind of always-on audio monitoring to eventually become common.

“Having the equivalent of a little angel on your shoulder that’s listening to you—in fact listening to your environment and helping you interact with that environment—will be something in the future that’s highly desirable,” he says.

Winarsky can imagine persistent listening going further than just waking up a phone and responding to user commands. For example, perhaps your smartphone could listen in on conversations and capture an acquaintance’s phone number so you don’t have to write it down or punch it into your handset.

There are some challenges, though; the biggest being that such a feature could suck the battery life from your smartphone faster than normal. But Qualcomm says Snapdragon Voice Activation lets gadgets “use the least amount of power possible” to monitor for the proper command, and Sensory says its technology is “low power.”

Another issue is ensuring that only the right person (or people) can utter the catchphrase to access the phone. Qualcomm and Sensory say that the technology will work only when the keyword or phrase is spoken in the device owner’s voice, but presumably another person could still get around this checkpoint by playing a voice recording. 

Curious smartphone and tablet users will get a chance to check out Qualcomm’s offering in a few months. The chip maker says more than 55 devices containing the Snapdragon 800 chip are “in development” and gadgets will be out in the second half of the year. Bernard Brafman, Sensory’s vice president of business development, says smartphones using the company’s latest TrulyHandsfree technology should be out this year, too.

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