Some hot technologies turn cold, while others become ubiquitous, a part of our everyday lives. While it’s impossible to predict what will survive — and what won’t — there are areas that hold promise for system integrators, software developers and resellers. Here are a few highlights of what we can
expect to see over the coming years.
While speech recognition is already being used in call centers and the automobile industry, the growth of wireless and mobile computing is making it much more important. That’s why many companies are putting increased efforts into mastering this science.
The technologies behind this — speech recognition, natural language understanding, dialogue management and text-to-speech — have crossed a threshold where building good applications is now possible, says David Nahamoo, group manager of the Human Language Technologies Group at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Centre.
IBM has established what it calls the Super Human speech recognition program, with a goal of delivering speech recognition technology by the end of the decade that does better than ordinary mortals.
“”The goal is to reduce the gap and outperform human beings,”” he says. “”A machine can essentially do 20 or 30 languages, no sweat. The number of human beings that can go beyond five languages is very small.””
The project includes research in audio-visual speech recognition, which incorporates visual information to process speech in noisy environments, such as trading floors. This essentially provides “”eyes”” to a microphone, Nahamoo says.
There are several challenges, though, such as dealing with background noise, overlapping voices, accents and dialects.
“”If we’re focusing on English, there are tremendous variations in the way that we say things and we have to get to a point of understanding different accents,”” he says.
Another issue is dealing with emotional speech. If you’re excited, angry or sad, he says, the quality of speech and sound changes. The challenge lies in being able to handle all of these variations.
“”We’ve set for ourselves a goal of improving the word error rate around many of these challenges by 25 per cent every year,”” he says. If the project can achieve that goal eight years in a row it will bring speech technology up to the level where it can match or outperform human performance.
“”We are at the cusp of adding a new layer to computing,”” he says. “”Now we are getting to the point of giving our computers eyes and ears and all of the senses that we use today for human interactions.””
Merging wireless and IP
Wireless is another area that continues to grow and evolve. Many businesses no longer see wireless as a secondary network, but as a technology that’s embedded into their network access strategy.
“”At home we’re going to see people using a WiFi phone as opposed to a regular cordless phone that’s connected to your phone line,”” says Chris Bazinet, enterprise marketing manager with Cisco Systems Canada.
“”What we think is going to happen in the future is you’re going to have a phone that is 802.11b connected to your DSL or cable line and all the voice traffic will be voice over IP — and the same thing is eventually going to happen in the office, too.””
Wireless IP phones have been available for more than a year, so businesses that have deployed wireless for data could use that wireless access to connect to a voice over IP network, he says. Eventually, we’ll see bigger screens on these phones that can be used for various applications; for example, doctors could use them to access patient records.
Five years ago, Bazinet says, convergence was about the convergence of the data network and the telco network, bringing data cables and voice cables together.
“”Now I think that philosophy has evolved quite a bit, so we’re really now talking about the convergence of applications that will benefit these two networks,”” he says.
“”I think there’s a lot more in front of us than behind us at this point, so what we’re seeing now is the actual hardware appearing. But we’re going to see a lot more [intelligence] going into these phones, more software applications, a lot more development going on there.””
Where it’s heading, he says, is a wireless video IP phone allowing users to stream video on the phone using wireless IP access.
“”You could also see the person you’re talking to on the other end,”” he says. “”We already have that on our desktop IP phone. We’re going to be taking this technology to the wireless IP phone.””
Radio Frequency Ident-ification has existed for more than a decade, but is now moving into the mainstream.
“”People use these technologies more often than they think,”” says Mark Relph, national manager of Microsoft Canada’s .NET Platform Team. “”The reason
it’s emerging is that the technology has advanced to the point where the tags can store information — not a lot of information, but very useful information.””
RFID technology has two components: the tag, a small piece of circuitry that broadcasts information, and a reader that picks up information. These tags could prove to be a valuable tool in tracking inventory, he says.
Right now, most retailers or supply chains use barcodes. “”In the RFID world, theory has it that a box can go by and broadcast what it is,”” he says.
“”Obviously there’s a lot of efficiency that would be pushed into that.”” Barcodes suffer from “”line of sight”” problems — users have to see them before they can scan them. And they only contain limited amounts of information; there’s no such thing as storage in a barcode. RFID tags have the potential to store information in a way that can actually tell you more about what a product is, he says.
“”In a world where efficiency is so important, you see industry really wanting to know more accurately how much inventory they have, where that inventory is going, making it easier at a retail level to sell items,”” he says.
But RFID technology isn’t limited to retail; it can be used for a variety of applications such as tagging and tracking. For example, hospital patients could be given a wristband with an embedded RFID tag, allowing their medical records to follow them around the hospital. The technology is already being used to track lost pets; information about the pet is embedded in a tag so when you read the tag you know which household the pet belongs to.
“”Some people are thinking of using it for tracking kids, too,”” he adds. Legoland in Europe, for example, is testing out the technology by providing wristbands to kids, allowing them to run free in the park while parents can keep tabs on where they are.
“”All of these things are examples of why RFID is becoming so important,”” Relph says, although the driving forces right now are Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense, both of which are mandating that their suppliers use RFID technology. “”Industry change usually requires the elephant of the industry to make a statement like that for a new technology to be picked up,”” he says.
The other reason it’s becoming more popular is because of the data that’s generated by these more intelligent tags. “”On a Wal-Mart scale, you almost get this tidal wave of data that you never had before,”” he says. “”It unlocks very powerful things.””
At this point, however, most industries are using both barcodes and RFID technology.
“”I think it’s going to be several years before RFID is exclusively used,”” he says. There are still kinks to be worked out; for example, RFID is based on radio waves and it’s possible to get bad reception, just like you would listening to the radio in your car.
The industry is also struggling with standardization. And there’s cost. “”If the tag costs m