You answer the phone, and a friendly voice tells you that a colleague is on the line. She asks if you want to take the call. Once, it would have been the assistant sitting outside your office. But that job disappeared in the last downsizing, and besides, you're on a cellular phone in a rented car, 500 miles from work.
This is no futuristic fantasy, but a product that's been on the market since December. Wildfire, from Wildfire Communications Inc. (800 945-3347), is an innovative combination of computer, voice-recognition, and telephone technologies that gives you a sort of virtual secretary--wherever you happen to be. Like a real assistant, Wildfire responds to spoken requests. She (after a few weeks of "conversing" with the female voice that is Wildfire, I find it hard not to call the system "she") is tireless. She places calls for you, directs incoming calls to the number of your choice, and puts through calls you've designated as important, while taking messages for other calls.
SIMPLE SPEECH. The heart of Wildfire is speech-recognition, a technology that's moving out of the laboratory and into your life. Telephone companies are using speech recognition to eliminate the last bits of human intervention from directory assistance. Catalog orders may soon be handled by speech-recognizing computers. As the technology gets cheaper and better, it will find a way into your PC--and maybe even your microwave.
Wildfire works well because it obeys the first law of speech recognition: Keep it simple. These systems work best when speech is confined to a limited vocabulary and precisely structured commands. Wildfire could understand me perfectly when I said, "That will be all for now," but not, "That's it for now."
Don't underestimate the power of simplicity. If I wanted to call the White House, I could just say "Call Bill Clinton." Wildfire would ask: "At home or at work?" "At work," I would say, and I'd soon have the White House switchboard. I could also create groups of people to whom I could broadcast voice-mail messages. "It buys me an hour a day in handling calls," says Barry McCurdy, research director for First Albany Corp., an investment bank.
To gain that advantage, you have to scale a demanding learning curve that is endemic to voice-recognition systems. You get some help from a pocket reference card and online assistance that's activated by asking, "What are my options?" But only time can accustom Wildfire to your voice and speech patterns. "You have to teach her to understand what you say," says McCurdy. "You have to invest some time in training."
CONTACT LIST. One of the most powerful features of Wildfire also requires a particularly large slug of up-front time. The system maintains a database of contacts, with their names and phone numbers. I found building this contact list to be a tedious business, especially since I had to spell the names either by using a dial pad or by speaking the "alpha-bravo-charlie" phonetic alphabet. Wildfire offers some methods for getting this data from a desktop computer into its database, but they're crude, and the job would have to be done by a computer-savvy administrator.
Planned software revisions would allow you to transfer information directly from contact lists kept on such programs as Lotus Organizer.
Wildfire is not cheap but the package should be within reach of many midsize businesses. A 25-user system fetches around $50,000, and the cost per user drops as systems grow, falling to about $1,300 in a 75-user setup. The system runs on standard PC hardware with specialized speech-recognition add-ons.
Until now, speech recognition has mostly been little more than a toy--or something that only users as big as a telephone company could afford. Wildfire shows that it can now be a real productivity tool for a growing number of people.