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This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 15, 1998. All rights reserved.
Internet by Audio
Here's one for the "Look Ma, No Hands!" department. You're driving down the road and you want to find out what the Washington Post says about Alan Greenspan's mood. Using only your voice you dial onto the World Wide Web, choose the Post from among your "favorite pages," and a few commands later you are listening to the headlines, delivered by a not-too-unpleasant synthesized voice.
The voice reads the headline and introductory sentences. Unrest in Beirut? Then, Ding! a bell is signaling the link to hear the rest of that story. You ignore it. Next topic: Starr subpoenas Tripp? Ding. Greenspan hints interest rate hike? Ding. You tell the device you want to hear that story.
A synthesized voice reads the Greenspan analysis, and you find it alarming. You send that page to your desktop PC so you can study it later at your office. Then you bring up an E-mail program (still using only your voice) and shoot off a quick E-mail telling your assistant to take defensive measures, in other words, to SELL right away. So as you drive on the interstate you are also riding on the Information Highway.
That's the future. It's not here yet, but it soon will be. Scientists at Siemens Corporate Research (SCR) at 755 College Road are developing a prototype for a Web-based Interactive Radio Environment (WIRE) that will enable a car driver to hear E-mail and websites by using a driver information system. They already have DICE: Delivering Information in a Cellular Environment, a system that works with touch-tone phones, including cellular phones, and they have three patents pending. The "hands-off" voice commands capability is not here yet, but that will be the next step.
"For those away from the office, or with no laptop readily available, this promises to fill one of the last communication gaps," says Michael Wynblatt, a Siemens Corporate Research scientist. Wynblatt joins Mary Evslin of ITXC Corp. on the technology panel "Use the Internet without a Computer" at the U.S. 1 Newspaper's Computer Showcase on Thursday, July 23, at 5:15 p.m. at Novotel. He will present the next step in ubiquitous computing by demonstrating the prototype of DICE, the cellular phone product, and discussing WIRE and its future.
Audio browsers could increase the on-the-road productivity of busy executives who are well-equipped with the computers, but they could also build a gravel path to the Information Highway for those who can't afford to buy a computer and for those who are blind. A small Trenton-based company, Productivity Works, which got started by targeting the blind population and then broadening its appeal, has beaten Siemens to the market with audio browsers for both computers and telephones. The $150 computer version is projected to sell 250,000 copies this year. The just-released phone version is $550 (http://www.prodworks.com).
Though audio browsing of the World Wide Web will probably never be as efficient as visual browsing, such low level access is better than nothing. "Although listening to the Web isn't the same as viewing pages, WIRE seems like the next best thing," writes Robert Burderl, former Business Week technology editor, author of "The Invention that Changed the World" and commentator for Upside magazine. "The concept is appealingly simple and could be useful if you're far from home or have a long commute. One minute you're bopping along to the Spin Doctors, the next you log into Sun World for tech talk. Granted, audio Net access could be pricey, but allowing free hookups in exchange for advertising in vehicles could lower the cost."
Siemens' DICE product is scheduled to be issued next year, and WIRE could follow shortly thereafter. Their target markets could be an individual user who would buy them as an off the shelf package, but they will more likely be sold to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telephone companies that want to enhance their array of client offerings.
Wynblatt is among three SCR scientists -- including Stuart Goose and Dan Benson -- who are working with their colleagues in Munich at Siemens AG's Private Communication Systems Group to develop DICE and WIRE. Wynblatt went to the University of Michigan, Class of 1991, and has a PhD from State University of New York at Stony Brook. At Siemens he uses multimedia techniques to help people make more efficient use of the Internet.
"Surfing the net with a telephone gives a lower starting cost to anyone who would like access to the Internet. You don't have to have a computer, which then opens up Internet access to a very big audience indeed," says Goose, a 1993 graduate of the University of Southampton (in the United Kingdom) who did his PhD thesis on distributed hypermedia systems. "Companies could leverage their website costs by opening up Web access to telephone users."
Plain text, if it is read aloud, would not sound interesting, and the hearer would probably end up frustrated, so the engineers are trying to make accessing and processing information faster and more intuitive. "Audio is a serial medium," says Goose. "How do you make audio usable and what sort of controls do you need to make it faster and more intuitive to use? People can glance at a graphical web page and understand the structure very quickly, but it can take longer to hear something than to see something."
The Siemens program offers clear structural clues to the web pages: It indicates titles, section headings, hyperlinks, typeface (boldface, italics, and underlining). You can listen in different modes. You can request just the headlines, for instance, and filter out all the story content. "Our aim with this research was to convey that structure and the semantics to the listener," says Goose.
Each user is going to have to spend from 15 minutes to a half hour to learn the push button commands. And it does take some time to adjust to the synthetic voice. But because you are downloading the pages as text only, the download time should be quick.
More than a dozen companies market speech synthesis systems. The ISPs using DICE or WIRE will be able to slot in the chosen text-synthesis speech engine and the software will translate the webpages into the format that the text-to-speech engine requires.
If WIRE is used along with a global positioning system, you could be driving down a highway and, based on your location, get information about nearby hotels and restaurants, perhaps even summoning the menus.
DICE does not support music, but WIRE supports Real Audio. Siemens is working on having DICE support "frames" within web pages, and at the U.S. 1 Computer Expo it will announce that it can use DICE to send E-mail as well as receive it. The sender listens to what he recorded in his natural voice, but the receiver hears a synthesized voice. Wynblatt is also working on having DICE support frames.
This is not the only way to get E-mail while you drive. Readers may remember possibilities proposed by the Rutgers Dataman project started seven years ago by Rutgers engineers (September 24, 1997). Dataman's mission was to develop ways to access the Internet from mobile sources under contract from the U.S. Defense Department. It involves a high bandwidth wireless "island" capable of transmitting really big files. "Infostations" or information kiosks would be able transmit not only E-mail but faxes, voicemail, maps, and other complex computer files in lightning fast times to recipients on the move.
Sheltered as they are in a research lab where most of the nitty gritty partnering and licensing decisions are made by other departments, the Siemens engineers are loathe to make many market comparisons or predictions about future developments. "If I could look down the road I would be a rich man," says Goose. But overall, the College Road laboratory of Siemens Corporate Research is working on an amazing variety of research projects.
Founded in 1847, Siemens operates in 22 countries and opened its United States operations after World War II. It is among the top 10 multinational employers in the United States. Of its 386,000 employees, 49,400 work in the United States.
Siemens had $63.7 billion in sales last year. It ranks second only to IBM in supplying electrical capital goods and is fifth in sales in the world electrical market, behind GE, IBM, Hitachi, and Matsushita.
At $4.8 billion ($614 million in the United States), Siemens' R&D budget is one of the largest of any industrial electronics company, according to a company brochure. The emphasis on R&D is a long-standing tradition; the 150-year-old firm points proudly to these firsts: the electric dynamo, electric train, X-ray tube, telex, and electron microscope. In collaboration with IBM and Toshiba, it developed the 64 and 256-megabit DRAM chips.
Of four corporate R&D centers worldwide, the College Road lab is the only one outside Germany, and it works with such universities as Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Princeton. It started in a 6,000-foot space at the Forrestal Center and moved into its own 100,000-foot building in 1988. SCR also works with other Siemens companies to incorporate new technology into other Siemens products.
For instance, Siemens has five "innovation fields" and the U.S. lab is charged with finding business opportunities in health innovation, headed by Shahram Hegjazi. So far, the lab is working on rehabilitation and assisting technologies, home and health automation for seniors, health center simulation modeling, and health care information systems.
Of Siemens' 37 core technologies, the College Road-based scientists do research on four of them. Thomas Murphy is the department head for software engineering, which involves regression testing, software architecture, source code browsers, test generation, and configuration management. One project helps automatically find program errors so that old mainframe-based programs can easily move to new workstation environments.
W. Ekkehard Blanz is in charge of adaptive information and signal processing, including neural networks and artificial intelligence. An example would be database mining for telecommunications, to identify caller fraud and predict calling patterns -- or for a factory's need to anticipate variations in inventory demand and come up with dynamic reordering strategies.
Alok Gupta heads imaging and visualization -- automating complex visual processes for industrial and medical applications. His department's advanced post-processing imaging system, a "fly through" diagnostic tool, is now a product known as 3-D Virtuoso, and is being marketed by Siemens Medical Systems in Iselin. Another program, AMPS (Automatic Myocardial Perfusion SPECT) helps evaluate nuclear medicine images used in diagnosing coronary artery disease.
Arding Hsu is the department head for Wynblatt's and Goose's group, multimedia/video technology. This department works in five areas: video management and processing (video-on-demand, tele-shopping, service instructions, training and process monitoring applications), multimedia asynchronous collaboration (supporting user-to-user communications with out face-to-face interaction), Internet multimedia (supporting both global access to the World Wide Web and enriched multimedia communication over the Internet), and multimedia for training and education (supporting "anywhere, anytime, anyway" multimedia tele-education and tele-training).
Wynblatt's area is multimedia documentation (migrating from existing documents to flexible hyperlinked multimedia electronic documents). Says Wynblatt: "It gives me an opportunity to impact how people go about their daily lives. The Internet is one of the last places where you can make a difference."
-- Barbara Fox
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