TECHNOLOGY: By the sound of your voice

Mailers debate voice-based systems’ promise for e-commerce

Voice-based technology, some believe, is the next big thing in e-commerce. From voice-recognition telephone services to online voice-to-text programs (which translate a person’s speech into text), the technology is poised to reinvent the way catalogers sell and consumers shop online.

With this in mind, many catalogers are eager to implement this technology to make online shopping more convenient. But other marketers say that, while they welcome the new technology, they are not likely to invest in it until it becomes more consumer-friendly.

With voice-recognition software, the catalog’s Website will recognize and respond to verbal commands given by a shopper. With voice-to-text software, the online catalog will translate into text any commands given by the shopper. As consumers increasingly use technology to communicate, do business, and shop on the run, it would seem many would prefer to speak rather than type.

But for voice-based systems to work in an e-commerce transaction, the shopper and the cataloger must have compatible software. (To that end, the shopper must also have adequate hardware, as most software requires high-speed processors.)

So far, few marketers are using voice-based systems, and even those interested in the technology are holding back for now. Reno, NV-based electronics cataloger iGo is considering using it, however, at the end of this year – “when we launch our phase III WAP [wireless application protocol] enabled version of our Website,” says CEO Ken Hawk. He notes that voice-based technologies will most benefit customers using wireless and keyboardless devices such as cellular phones, as they will be able to do things such as shop over the Internet simply by speaking.

Indeed, by their very nature wireless communications devices – such as Internet-connected cellular phones and handheld organizers – are helping establish a need for voice-based technologies. And some in the industry say that as long as the use of wireless devices grows, so will the use of voice-based technology. “There are only 4 million wireless users today,” says Joe Loll, senior director of marketing for San Francisco-based Vocal Point, a voice-based technologies provider. “But we expect that to increase 800% over the next several years,” he says, which will drive the demand for voice-based technologies.

Some are skeptical

But some catalogers aren’t so sure that the voiced-based technology is sophisticated enough to be widely implemented. David Blaise, president/CEO of Reading, PA-based games and novelties cataloger Brainstorms and the Star Trek memorabilia book 800-Trekker, says that while voice-based technology “is great for people who don’t like to type,” it can also be riddled with quirks that would frustrate online shoppers.

“For example, `Four score and seven years ago’ can be translated by voice-recognition technology as `Force car in seven ears ago,'” he says. “That’s bad enough with your own dictation, but as a customer service experience, it’s a disaster.” He thinks that if the voice-to-text software programs only need to differentiate between customer answers such as yes or no, or choices of a, b, or c, then “it would probably be fine.”

Moreover, from the consumers’ standpoint, voice-recognition technology isn’t necessarily plug-and-play, and it won’t instantly simplify the shopping process. Peter Ripley, Webmaster for New York-based catalog design firm AGA, says, “Most of the voice-recognition software on the market right now requires customers to train the programs to understand their voices.” Additionally, he says, “the software will work only if it’s used with a Website that has compatible software.” This, coupled with the fact that most of the software requires fast – and usually expensive – computers, makes it less likely to become widely adopted in the near future.

Maybe when it’s easier, though…

Though most catalogers contacted by Catalog Age say they do not currently use voice recognition technology, many say they would like to in order to make online shopping easier for their customers – when it becomes less cumbersome to do so.

“It absolutely would fill a need,” Ripley says, claiming that older buyers (over 65) would likely be encouraged to shop online without the hassle of typing and inputing commands. “I’ve met older people at cocktail parties who say the biggest obstacle between them and shopping online is the keyboard – they simply don’t want the hassle of typing or clicking on various buttons to navigate a site.” But, he says, until the software is sophisticated enough and works with the hardware of the general population of computer users, it isn’t likely to catch on.

Others are a bit more optimistic that the technology will be a viable option sooner rather than later. “Right now it’s difficult to determine real emerging technology from fads,” Blaise says. “But I’m inclined to think that talking instead of typing is a likely next step. At least until computers can transcribe thoughts. Now that would be cutting edge!”

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