Say the word: Google building voice-based search feature

Say the word: Google building voice-based search feature

Bangalore: The India research lab of Google Inc., the company that runs the world’s most used search engine, is building a voice-based search feature for markets in India that allow phone users to ask for information on neighbourhood restaurants, services and theatres.

Google’s voice algorithm, a software code, is undergoing “utterance training", which allows it to recognize English words in different accents as can be the case with users in India. The fully automated service will keep giving answers over the phone until the user selects the right option.

“For nearly 35% of the population who may never have access to a computer, this (telephone) may be the only way for accessing information," Prasad Ram, head of Google’s research and development in India, told a Computer Society of India conference last week.

In April, Google launched in the US a free, telephone-based service, known as 411, for users to get information on businesses such as pizza shops and restaurants. In the past year, Google has been aggressive in building a database for local and text-based search on mobile phones in India.

“India has its own challenges. We have the same English words spoken in different styles and accents," said Ram. He declined to elaborate on a time frame for the service to be launched in India.

Early last month, Bangalore-based start-up, among the first Indian firms to provide voice-based search, launched its service for information about city 2,000 restaurants.

When a restaurant is asked for, the system repeats the name and, following a confirmation, places a call to the selected place. Ubona, which in Swahili means ‘I hear’, plans to add other services such as entertainment, auto, health and beauty for callers who speak English.

“Our database has tens of thousands of (local) words and phrases. This is the differentiator," claims Jyotirmoy Chakravorty, co-founder of Ubona.

Conventional business directories or yellow pages service providers, such as Just Dial Pvt. Ltd, have employees who give business information to callers.

Previous attempts at building local voice response systems by firms such as HP Labs India, the Bangalore-based research unit of Hewlett-Packard Co., have had limited success. HP Labs tested a voice response system it developed for Indian Railways that allowed callers in cities such as Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata to ask for train arrival and departure timings. “It was from scratch. There is no commercially available (system) for our way of speaking," said Sitaram Ramachandrula, senior research scientist at HP Labs. The railways pilot did not extend beyond 2005, he added, citing commercial reasons and product support.

“It will take Google some time (to build a local voice search system). It (the software) cannot be implanted from the US," said Chakravorty, who aims to earn Rs2.50 for each call Ubona gets by December 2008.

Unlike PC-based search, where a query throws up multiple results, a voice-based search should be more accurate. “If the same output (as in PC) is generated, it would be a pain for the caller," said Ramachandrulu. “This is a challenge for Google," he added.