Intelleca Voice & Mobile has changed the voice recognition landscape in South Africa. No longer are speech-enabled applications limited to simple words and numbers, but phrases in multiple local languages can be understood and acted upon by applications in various industries.
A telephone call to Acsa or the DStv helpdesk could provide one with useful information, but not necessarily from a human call centre agent. Using speech recognition applications from Intelleca Voice & Mobile, many callers can have common queries resolved by simply talking and listening to an application.
Intelleca started life as a development company, looking for a niche technology that would differentiate it in specific areas of the market. Over time, some of these units grew into their own companies - Intelleca Voice & Mobile, being one of them, has grown into the primary business of the Intelleca group.
It was more than five years ago that Intelleca Voice & Mobile decided to focus on the speech recognition market. CEO, Michael Renzon, says the company saw an opportunity to differentiate itself and become a meaningful, relevant player in the voice market in the financial and telecommunications sectors where voice would soon have a tremendous impact.
Michael Renzon, CEO of Intelleca
At the time, there were two leading international companies in the speech market, SpeechWorks and Nuance. Although both provided excellent speech engines, Intelleca decided to work with SpeechWorks. Although there were certain applications the company could see merit in focusing on in the future, Renzon says voice technology five years ago still needed to mature before it was enterprise and commercially ready. Specifically, the following problems needed to be overcome:
* There were no standards in voice technologies.
* The core speech engines, while good, needed some work to overcome peripheral issues such as detecting and excluding background noise.
* Local languages and acoustics were a problem - the US English model could not handle local voices effectively.
Over the past five years, all these problems have been resolved, allowing Intelleca to now offer a commercial voice engine to the South African market. Firstly, VoiceXML has become the global standard for voice applications. Not only has it evolved as a standard, but VoiceXML is not based on proprietary middleware, which means companies can simply build voice applications without concern about which platform it will run on.
Renzon adds that the core speech engines have improved tremendously over the years. Today, for example, peripheral noise is handled far more easily than ever. It is, however, in the area of local languages and acoustics that Intelleca has proved its worth and gained international recognition.
A local speech engine
Intelleca set itself the task of developing a commercial South Africa speech engine that would meet the most stringent accuracy demands. It now has over 3 million utterances transcribed to assist it in developing a core engine for use in South Africa. While Intelleca was working on the local engine over the past few years, the international voice industry has undergone significant consolidation. SpeechWorks was acquired by ScanSoft, and the combined company later purchasing Nuance - and renaming itself Nuance and taking the undisputed lead in speech technologies.
Intelleca negotiated exclusive rights to develop South African language packs on Nuance's technology. This meant its solutions needed to pass international quality assurance standards.
"This makes Intelleca one of the few South African companies conducting its own research and development, comparable to any other organisation in the world," asserts Renzon. "The South African English language pack is already in operation, with Afrikaans and Zulu slated for completion this year. The Sotho pack will be released in 2007."
The use of Intelleca's language applications is increasing in various call centres in various businesses. Renzon does not see language recognition replacing call centre agents' jobs however, but that it will be used to take over common, routine tasks to leave agents free to handle more complex, value-adding tasks. This will leave companies able to spend more on higher-skilled agents who are able to provide greater value to the company rather than get bogged down in repetitive, boring jobs.
The next phase of Intelleca's development process is already underway and involves natural language recognition. Renzon says the idea is that people will be able to phone their banks' computers, verbally identify themselves and instruct them in their native language to carry out transactions. This type of application can be expanded to fit into any company's business in any industry where a call centre is an important part of the makeup.
Over the past few years, Intelleca has established itself as the leading voice recognition company in South Africa, creating commercial speech technology comparable to the best in the world and years ahead of its local competitors. Proof of the quality and reliability of the company's product is the growing number of organisations that have implemented voice recognition applications from Intelleca - and the list of potential customers keeps growing.
Speech-based flight information service
Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) has deployed an automated telephonic flight information system that is natural, friendly and interactive.
Acsa receives more than 50 000 flight enquiries every month at Johannesburg International Airport (JIA) alone. To efficiently process them, the company launched one of the first speech recognition telephone systems to be used by an airports authority anywhere in the world. The service enables users to find out the times of departure and arrival of any flight, local or international, to or from JIA just by making a call.
The Acsa speech service has a 95% call resolution rate, significantly higher than the average for traditional touch-tone based IVR solutions of around 15% to 40%. Calls that are unresolved are transferred to an Acsa agent. Thereafter such calls are analysed by Intelleca, as part of its continuous improvement programme to find further automation opportunities.
Self-service cellular airtime
Discovery Health's Vitality members qualify for 15% discount on all Vodacom and MTN pre-paid cards - and they can easily recharge their phone time through the integrated voice recognition system implemented for Discovery by Intelleca. In a first for cellphone users, the offering is made available on a 24-hour basis through an automated speech recognition service.
"Members call a toll-free number, and if they have previously registered with Discovery, either online, by phone or any other means, most of their details (such as cellphone and bank account numbers) will already be on the system. This reduces the amount of time they have to spend entering details, either by keypad or voice.
Self-service troubleshootingfor DStv subscribers
MultiChoice, South Africa's multichannel pay television platform company, chose a telephone call automation system from Intelleca to provide its DStv subscribers with access to an automated problem solving agent that uses on-screen error codes for error identification to start the problem resolution process.
The system gives callers the ability to speak to the virtual 'agent' and tell 'him' what the error is. The agent then takes the caller through a step-by-step process to solve the problem.