Last year, in the middle of a story on using cell phones in cars, I began to wonder why there were no wireless headsets for them. There was some hope from Bluetooth, a new radio technology that enables wireless connections between high-tech devices, but that was just a buzz back then. I eventually realized that it's not my car I should be worrying about. I'm never more than an arm's length away from the phone, and a cord from the phone to my ear isn't going to get in the way.
The natural place for a cordless headset is in the office. Especially in a home office, where you're always trying to do more than one thing at once. Getting the kids off to school while chatting with out-of-time-zone business contacts, say. Or fixing a midday snack in the kitchen, walking an insistent dog, or taking a well-deserved break by your backyard pool.
It was about that time that I ran across a company-to-be that had a similar idea. But ArialPhone, a Vernon Hills (Ill.) startup that launched itself in January, went me one better. Why not couple a cordless headset to a computer so that you can answer and place calls using voice commands? Say the name in the headset, and the computer looks up the number in your address book and dials the call.
I've been using the ArialPhone system for about a month, and I'm completely hooked. It hits dealers' shelves and mail-order phone giant Hello Direct Inc. on Aug. 1 or can be ordered on the company's Web site, www.arialphone.com. At $399, it's on the expensive side, though it's still cheaper than some of the cordless headset phones without voice recognition on the market today.
POWER BACKUP. ArialPhone's sleek, slate-blue base station, about the size of a paperback book, plugs into an electric outlet, a phone jack, and the USB port of your PC. (The company recommends PCs with processors of 600 megahertz or better; there's no version planned for the Mac.) There's an antenna to transmit and receive your commands and telephone calls, and there are charging stations for two batteries to power the headset, which includes a speaker and a short boom mike. Each battery is good for about two hours of talk. It takes less time than that to recharge, so you'll always have a fresh spare.
The earset weighs just under 2 ounces, including the battery and a headband or earhook. I wore it comfortably all day. The earset has a tiny button that you press to get the system's attention. "How can I help you?" asks Susan or Dave--your choice. After a few weeks, or whenever you're comfortable with the voice commands, you can turn off Susan or Dave to save time. You'll be greeted by a tone instead.
Right now, you can use ArialPhone to call people by speaking their name only if they are listed in your Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express address books. Software for other contact managers, including ACT! and GoldMine, will be out later this year. You also can dial any number simply by saying it.
PRIVATE LINE. In case you're wondering, Bluetooth this isn't, and that's probably good. Today's Bluetooth devices have a range of 30 feet or so. ArialPhone uses the conventional 900 MHz cordless phone band. It will work up to about 150 feet from its base station, and will work through walls (even, the company points out on its Web site, mirrored bedroom ones). It's digital, too, so neighbors won't be able to listen in.
There are still a few rough edges. I found that the ringing telephone tone, right in your ear, was too loud and could not be turned down. Some of my callers complained that I sounded distant or muffled, and one early version of the phone I used had a faint, high-pitched tone that may have given that effect. Others, however, didn't even know I was talking over a headset phone. And hanging up after a call is a nuisance. You press the button and say: "Hang up." You should be able to just press the button to disconnect.
Still, it's better than racing down the hall to answer the phone or, worse, missing a critical call. I wandered off to the bathroom during an hourlong conference call with my boss the other day. Even briefly out of range, ArialPhone didn't drop the call, and my boss was none the wiser. The way I see it, that's a productivity tool that I shouldn't have to live without.
Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.