Conversations control computers

By Eric Smalley, Technology Research News

Because information from spoken conversations is fleeting, people tend to record schedules and assignments as they discuss them. Entering notes into a computer, however, can be tedious -- especially when the act interrupts a conversation.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology are aiming to decrease day-to-day data entry and to augment users' memories with a method that allows handheld computers to harvest keywords from conversations and make use of relevant information without interrupting the personal interactions.

The researchers have built three prototype handheld computer applications that tap keywords from conversations.

The Calendar Navigator Agent monitors the user's conversation for keywords that have to do with scheduling, and acts on those keywords to, for instance, pull up a handheld computer's calendar application and open an appropriate page when the conversation turns to days and times. DialogTabs collects keywords that can be used as an aid for the user's short-term memory. And Speech Courier collects keywords in order to relate portions of a conversation to a third party who is not present.

"The real application is in reducing otherwise redundant manual input with your computer when you're talking with someone else," said Kent Lyons, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "This technique cannot be applied everywhere, but... our three prototypes show some different potentially practical applications," he said.

To initiate any of the applications, the user holds down a button on his handheld computer to signal that the system should record and transcribe his words.

Calendar Navigator Agent recognizes dates and times and uses them to navigate and mark a graphical scheduling program. This frees the user from having to manually navigate and mark the scheduler while he verbally makes an appointment with another person. Pressing an undo button reverses erroneous entries.

DialogTabs allows a user to capture segments of a conversation as a memory aid. The software produces a tab on the side of the computer's screen to mark a captured segment, and stacks the tabs vertically with the most recent segment on top. The system displays the transcribed text of a segment when the user hovers the mouse over a tab. Clicking on a tab brings up a dialog box containing the text and gives the user the option to replay portions of the recorded speech.

Speech Courier sends recorded audio and transcribed text to a designated email address. This allows a user to capture a portion of a conversation that indicates that a task should be done and use the captured speech to assign the task to someone else.

The researchers' system protects privacy by only using speech from the user's side of the conversation, said Lyons. "We have intentionally used microphones that only capture the user's voice and [have] designed our interactions knowing we only have the information from the single side of the conversation," he said.

The researchers' next steps are to identify other scenarios where this method could be used, and to quantify the usefulness of the technique, including how speaking to a conversational partner and a computer simultaneously impacts the flow of the conversation, said Lyons.

The technique will also become more useful as speech recognition improves, said Lyons. "The big technology challenge is speech recognition," he said. "Current automatic speech recognition systems are not trained to deal with conversational speech nor all of the other effects that can occur while mobile."

For limited domains like calendaring, the technique could be used in practical applications in two to five years, said Lyons. "Given the way speech recognition research has progressed in the past decade I'd suspect more general applications like Speech Courier are 10 plus years away," he said.

Lyons research colleagues were Christopher Skeels, Thad Starner, Cornelius M. Snoeck, Benjamin A. Wong, and Daniel Ashbrook. They presented the work at the User Interface Software and Technology 2004 (UIST '04) conference held October 24 to 27 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The research was funded by U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Timeline:   2-5 years
Funding:   Government
TRN Categories:  Human-Computer Interaction
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Augmenting Conversations Using Dual-Purpose Speech," User Interface Software and Technology 2004 (UIST '04) conference, October 24 to 27, Santa Fe, New Mexico


January 12/19, 2005

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