Google launches 411 service in Canada
Today Google Inc. launched a Canadian version of its voice-recognition local search phone service GOOG-411. Canada becomes the first country outside the U.S. to gain access to the service.
Google has built an empire by helping people find their way through the tangled brush of the Internet -- and supplying tiny ads along the edges of those searches -- but has since branched out to provide tools that help users find directions (Google Maps), view the world in the form of maps or satellite images (Google Earth) and even track the movement of the stars in the sky (Google Sky).
With GOOG-411, users dial a hotline -- 1-800-GOOG-411 -- and respond to the questions posed by the voice-recognizing computer on the other end.
Much like a movie theatre search service, it asks for the user's city and province, then what they are searching for. A request for "pizza" made from the Globe and Mail newsroom in downtown Toronto yielded eight responses, and the service listed the choices and offered addresses for each.
A user can then choose whether to hear the phone number, be connected directly to the business or receive a text message with the details of the restaurant. There is also an option to have a Google Map link sent to the screen of their phone.
"We incorporated some Canadianisms such as "eh," "Traw-na," "Cal-gry," and, of course, "aboot."
The service is currently only available in English, but Google said it is working on a French version of the site.
But it also seems to me that there's a hidden story here about the speech recognition itself. I was talking recently to Eckart Walther of Yahoo!, who used to be at Tellme, and he pointed out that speech recognition took a huge leap in capability when automated speech recognition started being used for directory assistance. All of a sudden, there were millions of voices, millions of accents to train speech recognition systems on, and much less need for the individual user to train the system.
This is reminiscent of a comment that Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, made to me last year about automated translation, and why it's getting better. "We don't have better algorithms. We just have more data."
In short, I'm speculating that the 1-800-GOOG-411 service is designed to harvest voice data to build Google's own speech database, rather than licensing from Nuance or another player.