- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

The other night, you see, Jean, my wife, thinks I've lost it. I'm standing in the kitchen, the phone rings, and I bark out, "Answer." Then again, "Answer." She gets up and gives me a look well you can imagine the look she shoots my way.

Then she saw it, the little half-headset hanging off my ear. It was the ArialPhone, a PC-based device, and I was issuing a voice command for it to answer the phone. What she didn't see was my pressing an "action button" discretely mounted on the side of the device. Sold by ArialPhone Corp. of Vernon Hills, Ill., the $399 yes $399 device promises a lot, and delivers almost all of what it promises.

The new device, released last month, blends wireless telephony and speech recognition technology in a wearable, 1.2-ounce earset that currently works with Microsoft Outlook and will be adapted for other contact management software. As a result, you can place standard phone calls using a computer contact database by simply saying a person's name or phone number. The unit boasts hands-free design that enables users to move untethered up to 150 feet from their computers.

In theory, the idea would be for me to press the action button and say, "Call Janet Smith at work," and the phone would dial Miss Smith's office number. In practice, this works about 80 percent to 85 percent of the time. There are some people whose names aren't easily handled by the software my friend (and ZDNet columnist) David Coursey is one. It took six tries or more for ArialPhone to recognize my pronunciation of Mr. Coursey's name and dial him.

And once you say a name, or name and location, and once you issue the command to call, ArialPhone will ask "Do you want to call Janet Smith at work?" and wait for an answer. Sometimes, the software will not recognize a "yes" response, and you're back to square one. The same frustrations, and more, can sometimes apply to having ArialPhone dial a number. It'll read the number back to you and ask for confirmation; that's fine, but in one case it was off by one digit on each of three tries.

Such hiccups can get frustrating. But they are likely to come about because the product uses something called "speaker-independent voice recognition technology," which the maker says "enables the use of intuitive and natural language-based commands, eliminating the need for any voice training prior to operation."

The good part of that is that the device, which connects to a PC via a USB port and includes a 900 MHz cordless phone base station that also charges the tiny lithium-ion batteries for the earset.

The makers have, initially, a rather targeted market for this device: people working at home (or in small offices) whose day revolves largely around using the telephone. Such numbers are large and growing larger: in a speech last week in Los Angeles, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta urged companies to increase the number of telecommuters to ease traffic problems.

As a writer who works from home, I may be the prototypical ArialPhone prospect, which is one reason I jumped at the chance to work with the product. I've used it steadily for almost two weeks, and by steadily I mean eight to 10 hours a day, although obviously not continuously. When it works well when the number is read back correctly, when "answer" is understood, the device is great. When "answer" isn't heard by the software, however, I have to dash for a regular phone before my voice mail kicks in.

Perhaps the greatest drawback, to me, of the ArialPhone is that it is a single-line device. I don't have call waiting, and usually use my "second" line for outgoing calls, keeping the "main" line free for incoming ones. Since ArialPhone only allows me to use one line, and because I want to use it to answer incoming calls, I'm reduced to that one line, by and large. I'd rather be able to use two lines with the device.

Another concern albeit a slight one is battery life. The earset batteries are rated at "two to three hours of talk time," the maker says, but I heard the warning beeps quite a bit. Because the unit is supplied with two batteries, there's always a fresh one in the charger, however. And, the system can place a call "on hold" while you change batteries.

Overall this product is a good no, make that a very good start at the kind of PC/ telephone integration many of us have dreamed of over the years. It could stand a few tweaks, but I found that once I started using this device, it was very difficult to stop. So, I won't.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com. Talk back live to Mark every Thursday from 8 to 9 p.m., Eastern time, on www.adrenalineradio.com.

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