Voice-activated search is often billed as one of the next frontiers of search technology as search extends its reach to mobile devices. Yet is there a market for using the technology on the desktop?
Voice Tech Group thinks so, and its proof of concept is Tazti, a new product that just came out in its beta 1.0 version. To appreciate it, you need to download it. I saw a private demo months back at the Web 2.0 Expo, but only recently did I have the opportunity to download it myself, and after a bit of a detour in the setup process, I was treated to some of the most fun I've had with new Web technologies. I had to keep calling colleagues over to show them how it worked. That doesn't mean they'll rush to download it themselves. To understand the disconnect, first we'll explore the technology, and then study its planned advertising model.
Using Tazti requires a download, a hindrance for any search technology, though if the value proposition is strong enough, consumers will gladly go through with it (look back to the desktop search wars of 2004-2005 as a prime example). Once installing Tazti, you're urged to go through a training session with Microsoft's speech settings based in the Control Panel. The first session takes ten minutes but feels much longer. After that, Tazti is ready for its test drive.
There are four types of voice commands you can use with Tazti. The first includes basic commands to open programs like the calculator, the Control Panel, iTunes, and others. Then there are pre-defined Web commands installed with Tazti that include bringing up Web sites either directly ("go amazon") or through category associations ("get news" brings up NYTimes.com). You can also create custom commands to bring up various programs or Web sites, which adds to the entertainment value. I set Tazti to bring up my LinkedIn profile whenever I say the "Finding Forrester" tagline "Who's the man now, dog?" in my best -- or worst -- Sean Connery accent.
Lastly, we come to the search commands. Tazti is programmed for 16 different engines, or specialized versions within engines. These include the major three engines, plus AOL Video, Google Finance, Flickr, MySpace, and several others. For the right types of searches, it delivers answers quickly. For instance, Google already knows my zip code for movie searches, so when I tell Tazti to "search Google" and then say "Transformers" at the prompting beep, Google brings up show times at theaters nearest my home right atop the natural search results.
When Google didn't remember my location, local search with Tazti was frustrating. Supposedly, you say "zypsearch google" or "zypsearch yahoo" and then say the zip code and subject of the search. It took me ten tries for Tazti to recognize 10028 as a zip code, and I had to keep saying it various ways. This can be chalked up to quirks in this early beta release, but it will have to improve dramatically.
There are a number of obstacles ahead of Tazti beyond its downloading, training, and accuracy. One is operating it in a home or office environment. Every sound that plays, whether it's from outside noise like talking on the phone or something on your computer like a video clip, can trigger Tazti, often with bizarre results. For Tazti to work best, you have to turn it on and off as you need it, and this extra maintenance can limit its usefulness.
According to Voice Tech Group's Stuart Goller, who founded the company with his brother Michael, VTG hopes to have advertisers support Tazti by sponsoring the default commands so that The New York Times, for example, would pay for its association with "go news" for a certain number of months. That would of course require sizeable distribution, with enough searches for any category to make sponsorship worthwhile. Even a larger rollout is required for VTG's ambition of allowing advertisers to target links based on a user's location.
Once an advertiser's term wraps, bidding could be opened up in an auction-based model. Yet this is one case where auctions could be a disservice to the user. Rather than auctioning a search ad or a TV spot where an advertiser pays for the opportunity to reach consumers in a way that supplements the media property's core offering (e.g., natural search listings or a television program), this would be auctioning the content itself. That would be akin to CBS shelving "Survivor" midway through a season because "Flight of the Conchords" offered a higher bid for that time slot.
The possibilities for VTG changing Tazti's offering remotely based on advertiser demand are limitless, according to Goller. Everything can be changed remotely except for a user's custom commands. VTG could even update the search engines offered, whether due to changes in popularity of a given site or potentially by allowing sites to buy in. This again could create complications. Could you imagine the backlash from digg's users if digg was removed for any reason at all? Tazti's install base would plummet overnight.
Pleasing consumers will prove to be Tazti's biggest challenge. If they binge on Tazti, there are enough ways to satiate advertisers without detracting from the consumer experience. As of now, though, Tazti's an amuse bouche, not an entrée.