New Delhi: How cool would it be to surf the Internet by hearing it?
Researchers at the International Business Machines (IBM) India research laboratory are working on a phone-based Internet where even illiterates could create websites, link to and access information on others’ sites, through a series of voice commands, using a basic phone.
Amit Nanavati, a senior scientist at the lab and one of the lead contributors to the project, envisions the World Wide Telecom Web, a virtual mesh of so-called voicesites akin to the World Wide Web.
Dialling these voicesites is akin to calling a telephone company to download the latest ringtone. An automated voice instructs you to push buttons, or speak certain words that springboard you to various menus.
“Such interactive voice response systems are hard to make, especially for first time users. So what we’ve done is design an engine that allows users to follow simple instructions to create their websites in regional languages,” said Nanavati.
VoiGEN, the system being developed, aggregates technologies such as speech recognition systems and software tools where anyone can make a similar audio “website” within minutes.
More accessibility: As part of IBM’s pilot project in Andhra Pradesh, a mechanic uses his mobile phone to create his audio website. IBM’s target audience are carpenters, plumbers and small businessmen who want to reach out to a wider audience, but can’t afford the advertising costs.
All voicesites will exist on dedicated servers that will manage and return sites to users based on their searches.
“The World Wide Web as we know exists became popular as it became relatively easier to create your own websites and host them on a common WWW platform. So, voicesites can take off if users can quickly and easily make voicesites of their own,” said Nanavati.
In a pilot study, detailed in a research publication, the researchers said 10 of the 12 subjects, who were mostly carpenters, plumbers and electricians and briefed about the application for 10 minutes, were able to generate their voicesite in under 4 minutes.
IBM’s target audience are carpenters, plumbers and small businessmen. “People who want to reach out to a wider audience, but can’t afford the advertising,” said Nanavati.
For instance, a Delhi-based plumber who would traditionally depend on word-of-mouth publicity to advertise his services can now set up a voicesite with details on the services he offers. The plumber’s voicesite is hosted on a dedicated engine. End-users looking for somebody to plug their leaking taps will access this engine via a phone number (akin to typing out say, Google.com on a Web browser), and via a chain of voice instructions hit upon a specific plumber’s website.
IBM’s attempts are still early in the day. Spokespersons declined to give details on the company’s investments in the project, deadlines or progress on pilot projects under way in Gujarat and Delhi. However, its high expectations from the “spoken Web” is undeniable. “All of our eight research and development labs across the globe are involved with the project. Each is working on parts of it and India is playing a nodal role,” said Kiran Kumar, communications director at IBM India.
With among the highest growth rates of telephone connections and a literacy rate still hovering around 60% (well below Unesco’s 75% threshold), experts say there’s a promising market for technologies as these.
“Though mobile penetration is rapidly increasing, we’ve also seen free services such as SMS and cameras aren’t very popular in rural areas,” said telecommunications analyst Ravi Aggarwal, “and BlackBerry-styled Internet access might still be a long way for rural india. So, a voice-based Internet on the phone does sound promising.”
N. Balakrishna, computer science head and assistant director at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore is cautiously optimistic. “Given copious bandwidth, it’s possible to develop alternative communication technologies. I mean it takes much less space to host a page, than have an audio recording of its content. But boosting bandwidth would mean a systematic upgrade of our communication systems. After all, we’ve only just started using 3G networks.”