Opera Software is developing a new Internet browser that allows users to talk to their computer, the company announced Tuesday.
The new browser incorporates IBM's ViaVoice technology, enabling the computer to ask what the user wants and "listen" to the request. Opera declined to give a launch date.
The browser is at its developmental stage. At a demonstration, a pizza order form was promptly displayed when the tester told the computer, "Order pizza." But the browser misinterpreted an order for "a pizza" as "eight pizzas."
"We feel we are on the verge of moving the Web a little bit," said Christen Krogh, head of Opera's software development.
"Voice is the most natural and effective way we communicate," Krogh said. "In the years to come, it will greatly facilitate how we interact with technology."
The computer learns to recognize its users voice, accent and inflections by having them read a list of words into a microphone.
"Hi. I am your browser. What can I do for you?," asked a laptop with the demonstration versions of the browser. The message can easily be changed to suit users, such as greeting them by name.
The demonstration version, so far only in English, is still far from normal casual conversation. Users have to learn to listen to the computer's question, and then wait for a tiny beep before stating their request, a bit like communicating by pressing the transmit key on a simplex radio.
"I would like a medium pizza with extra cheese, mushrooms and salami," a tester told the machine.
The machine checked off the appropriate boxes on the form, but interpreted "a pizza" as "eight pizzas." Then it asked if the order was correct, and fixed the number when told the order was for one pizza.
"Voice has been seen as the next step for years, but there were always problems," Krogh said.
The browser corresponds to simple commands. For example, say "Get AP" and it would go to The Associated Press Internet page.
By embedding IBM's voice technology into Opera's browser, a user can talk to the computer, which will understand and translate into normal code for the Net, Krogh said. The could open up the Internet to users who had been excluded because, for example, they were physically unable to use a keyboard, he added.
Opera is the third-largest browser on the Web, although it is tiny compared to Internet Explorer and Netscape. It has been gaining ground as the browser of choice for hand-held devices, such as mobile telephones and personal data assistants, because it is known as being fast and needing little memory.
IBM's director of embedded speech, Igor Jablokov, said "the new offering will allow us to interact with the content on the Web in a more natural way, first on PCs and in the near future on devices such as cell phones and PDAs."
Opera plans to first launch an English version of the voice browser for Windows, to be followed by versions for other operating systems, including Linux and Symbians.
Oslo-based Opera was founded in 1995 by two former developers for the Norwegian telecommunications group Telenor as an offshoot of a company project. CNN