- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2008

Somewhere, maybe, James Doohan is smiling. You remember the affable Canadian actor, whose Scotty on “Star Trek” was often talking to the computer, even if (in one film) it was the mouse of an old Apple Mac? Mr. Doohan died in 2005, but his brogue - affected for the part - lives on.

Well, yesterday, I “spoke” to my iPhone - and it found a hotel for me. I did this not by calling 411, but by using Google’s updated Google Search software. You talk, it looks stuff up.

That seems simple, so simple that Spock might furrow his brow in scorn, but it really isn’t. Anyone familiar with the history (and current state) of voice-recognition software knows that it’s not easy going all the time. With a traditional voice program, you have to “train” the software to recognize your own voice and inflections and do so with a lot of vocabulary words. It’s been a good while since I’ve tried this, but it’s not easy, and unless injury or incapacity require it, few of us make the effort. It’s just a pain.

Which is why saying something such as “hotels, Warrenton, Virginia,” into a software program and having it type “hotels, Warrenton, VA,” and then find those hotels is a minor miracle. Had I wanted to find lodgings in the place I was then sitting, I could have just said “hotels,” and Google Search, using the GPS features of the iPhone, would have determined my location and found whatever I was looking for, or so the makers claim.

The voice feature seems to run only on the iPhone right now, although the location-aware bit is said to run on T-Mobile’s G1 “Android” phone, whose software is made by Google, as well as Windows Mobile devices. On these, Google’s Web site says, the locating is done either via GPS or knowledge of your nearest cell tower’s location. Very nice.

One can only hope it will expand the voice recognition aspect to other platforms, since Google does seem to want to “spread the wealth” to a bunch of computers and operating systems. (Then again, I’m still waiting for the Mac version of Google’s Chrome Web browser. Sigh.)

This is notable for more than just the “cool” factor. It’s a key evolution in voice recognition software that might render all sorts of things obsolete. One of these is the often-abysmal directory assistance service of AT&T Wireless. Call 411 on an AT&T cellular phone and you might get your number - and you might not. I’ve even had operators working under the AT&T name tell me they couldn’t find the corporate headquarters number for AT&T Wireless. It’s pathetic. But if Google Search performs as advertised, it could find those numbers for you; the iPhone operating system would highlight the number on-screen, and you can click-to-dial.

Other applications are myriad. Ironically, as some have noted, you can’t yet have this search your own online Google directory of contact, which every Google Mail user has, right? That might come along down the road, and if it does, you suddenly have something truly remarkable.

E-mail Mark Kellner at [email protected]



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