Computer... Indian Food

Since the days of Captain Kirk swaggering around the Enterprise conference room and barking commands at the pliant and oh-so-female "computer," voice input has been one of the core tech geek fantasies. For a decade I must have reviewed every iteration of Dragon Software's Naturally Speaking program, which tried to make Windows and its applications respond accurately to voice commands.

Try as I might, there was no getting past the silliness of talking to your computer. Somehow this input method seemed like a non-starter to me. I imagined a cacophonous workplace of cubicles with people saying "Block, Copy, Next Window..." on top of one another. Somehow it all seemed so practical and efficient in "Star Trek." Only in Trek-World could William Shatner make such a nerdly activity as talking to your computer seem cool.

Now that cell phones have changed the nature of public space, we are used to seeing people talk into thin air. We used to call it schizophrenia; now we take it as modern life.

Voice input suddenly is more appealing when a phone keypad is the main alternative. In mobile search especially, text input remains a work in progress. For local queries you can put in a default zip code, but the pain of using a phone keypad is enough to discourage all but the most necessary searches. Predictive search boxes are helpful, and GPS can drop a step and make directions more precise.

Voice-input has been out there for a while in several forms. Google's own 1-800 is fully voice-powered and the results come through the voice channel as well. I have played with a number of these toys over the years, but one widely available option from Sprint is very impressive in the way it combines Voice, GPS, and text with smart design to optimize the usual search experience.

Live Search, Microsoft/Sprint's co-branded solution, is free for Sprint data plan members and takes the form of a downloadable Java application that is apart from the embedded search box in the Sprint vision WAP interface. Live Search has a Google-like clarity and simplicity that seems to streamline operations at every stage. It grabs the GPS location at start, which does add an irritating lag to an experience that usually starts with a search box. There is a typical search box, but it invites you to press the TALK key and speak a search. I tried a combination of branded franchises (McDonald's, Domino's), categories (Indian food, hospital, book store) and mom and pop local store names. The engine recognized every term I threw at it and returned accurate results sorted by distance from my location.

Okay, so voice search works. But what really made the whole program hang together is that the rest of the experience followed seamlessly from that simple, smooth, query entry. Clicking into a result pulls up a full-page listing that offers a set of large icons for dialing, mapping, calculating directions or sharing with someone else. Each element maintains clean links with the other operation. Drill into the map and a menu also lets you call or share, for instance. The sharing function ties directly into your phone's contact list. The directions are very precise, of course, since they use GPS to bring you from the current location.

The sum total of an efficient, fast mobile program is an application that invites frequent reuse. The voice input is a critical shortcut that initiates the process, but the rest of the program follows through with similar simplicity. Live Search demonstrates that two important features of recent phones, voice recognition and GPS, can blend to overcome the same device's greatest weakness, input.

Whether any of us wants to be caught dead yelling "hair salon" at a cell phone on the street corners of America is another story. We live in an age when it is getting harder to distinguish the delusional street people from the merely hip.

Tags: mobile
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