EuroScan, my monthly column for the Innovation&Design section of BusinessWeek Online, is published today. It discusses a British service that takes voicemails and turns them into text, opening up new communication possibilities. Here it is:
While generally useful, I find voicemail to be inherently inefficient. You dial someone. The phone rings. The call rolls into the machine. You listen to a message that too few keep short. You leave yours, often just asking to be called back. When the other person calls back, you may be in the middle of something and ask to call them back, or you may just be unavailable and so the call rolls into your voicemail, launching a game of phone tag. And even when a caller does leave a to-the-point message, you still have to retrieve it, and that can't be done at any time. It's rude to retrieve messages during a meeting, for example, and if you're driving, you have to stop to write down a phone number. It is not uncommon to have to listen to the message twice to get a detail right. Frustrating is voicemail's middle name.
Someday, so-called "presence information" (a system that tells the caller whether you're available at that moment, as happens on Skype or on instant-messaging platforms) may solve that problem. But for now, wouldn't it be better if your caller's message was delivered to your e-mail in-box or to your cell phone as a text? Christina Domecq believes it would, and that's the whole, simple idea behind her company, SpinVox, a two-year-old startup based in London.
Domecq used to be a consultant, and experienced voicemail frustration firsthand. "I would get to the end of a fast-paced day and check my voicemail and find that I had still 14 messages to go", she said when we spoke recently. She started looking for a solution, and when she found none, she decided to create one, together with co-founder Daniel Doulton. They developed their voice-to-text system on top of existing speech recognition software, adding some patented technology, and launched in Britain in the second half of 2005.
Today, SpinVox has 150 employees and claims 120,000 paying users, mostly in Britain, but the service has recently launched in the U.S., Spain, and France, with Germany following soon. Users pay about five British pounds (just under $10) a month for the transcription, on average, of 30 voicemails a month (you can listen to the original messages anytime). This year, the company plans to announce deals with telecom operators to deploy its technology directly within their networks.
Transcribing a voice message into text may not seem like much, and there are other companies that offer similar services, but SpinVox seems to have made it extremely easy to use. And cell-phone subscribers accustomed to receiving SMS alerts that they have new voicemail will quickly appreciate how much better and faster it is when that notification contains instead the actual text of the message.
"It's all about saving people time," says Domecq, "and giving them more free time." Or the time to do more. "One evening at a party," she says, "someone walked up to me and said, jokingly, 'You should be ashamed; you sped up my life another notch.'"
Of course, a key question when it comes to voice recognition is accuracy, and SpinVox's is surprising. I asked them for a test account and called in leaving myself a message with the text of the first few lines of this column. Here is what came into my e-mail and (by SMS) my cell phone about three minutes later, unedited:
"While generally useful(?) I find voicemail to be inherently inefficient. ___ someone, the phone rings & the call rolls into the machine. You listen to a message that too few keep short, you leave yours often just asking to be called back. When the other person calls back you maybe in the middle of something & have to call them back or you may just be unavailable & so the the call rolls into your voicemail launching a game of phone tag."
And consider that I speak fast and have a thick Italian accent.
The idea, really, goes beyond voicemail-to-text. "It's about voice-to-screen in any application," says Domecq. SpinVox is working on expanding the concept to blogging by voice, for example. What gets me really excited, however, is when voice gets turned into text on a screen, then it becomes searchable, archivable, editable, taggable, bloggable, and forwardable, opening up whole new areas of communication.