Voice sentiment analysis gains traction

What if a machine can tell whether a human is angry, sad, happy, or indifferent? Facial recognition research has also enabled studies on facial sentiment analysis, determining the emotion of a human by analyzing the dynamics of facial muscles. But video and image analysis take a lot more horsepower and dollars to be effective, and facial recognition applications are still mainly affordable only to research institutions, law enforcement agencies, military facilities, and large casinos (according to Hollywood).

But there’s a good chance that voice sentiment analysis becomes mainstream before its facial counterpart. After all, in many instances where we cannot see each other during a communication, voice is still the next best thing. Voice sentiment analysis is a branch of speech analytics, and some speech tech vendors may already claim their software’s sentiment analysis capabilities. However, a lot of the claim is based on searching for words or phrases from a person’s speech input (for example, looking for curse words).

Obviously this isn’t the ideal approach. As we all know, these four-letter words can also be dropped into expressing excitement and positive sentiment. You and I know clearly that “I’m gonna f–king cancel the service” and “I’m so f–king happy with this product” have completely opposite sentiments. But to a machine analyzing based on keywords — both could be flagged as negative responses.

A somewhat advanced algorithm would also take into account other words in the response. For example, scoring the “cancel” as negative and “happy” as positive following the f-word.

Even better is to factor in the voice acoustics. The pitch, speed, intensity, etc. of a vocal response could offer insight into the sentiment. Pay attention to your own voice next time when you’re happy or upset, and you may notice the difference.

The benefits of good voice sentiment analysis is apparent in the contact center environment. And there appears to be traction in this niche space…

Recently, startup Saygent received $1 million in funding to take voice sentiment analysis to the cloud. The founders/makers of Saygent also operate SayHired, an automated phone screening service with some high-profile customers like Hertz, esurance, and Great Clips. Saygent would be the new kid on the block to compete with some of the more established speech analytics vendors like Autonomy, CallMiner, Nexidia, NICE, and Verint.


Apple, Nuance deal could usher in new era of smart customer service

Recently there’s quite a buzz — and new evidence — about a close partnership between Apple and Nuance. Speech technology is not new and neither is the fact that computer operating systems have incorporated it to a certain extent (mainly text-to-speech, or TTS). Remember when Steve Jobs introduced the first ever Mac on January 24, 1984? He actually allowed Mac to greet the audience (see 3:30 mark):

The robotic TTS doesn’t sound as sexy as Mac OS X’s Agnes, Kathy, Vicki, or Victoria, but the crowd went wild nonetheless. Back then it was pretty impressive for such a tiny computer to be able to speak. Even until today, Apple stayed true to its core philosophy of delivering the best user-friendly products, and part of that means adopting I/O interfaces that are natural to a human: speech, handwriting, and gestures.

The Mac introduction footage showed speech in Mac OS. It also exists in Mac OS X and iOS (as Voice Control, to a limited extent).

Handwriting recognition (or, as some may ridicule, the lack thereof) was one of the highlighted features of the Apple Newton, the grandfather of PDAs introduced in 1993. The technology is present in Mac OS X and iOS as well — for example, I’m able to input Chinese characters by writing on the trackpad or iPhone screen.

Starting with the iPhone came the prevalence of gesture input. We’re all quite familiar with the tapping, swiping, and pinching gestures in using the iPhone and other smartphones as well. Apple even made this available on devices with trackpads. This input method is by far the most natural — even toddlers “get it.”

But I digressed. This article is about how the Apple-Nuance partnership could impact customer service technologies.

So, what really caught my attention was a piece from TechCrunch:

In digging into the information about the relationship between the two companies, we had heard that Apple might actually already be using Nuance technology in their new (but yet to be officially opened) massive data center in North Carolina. Since then, we’ve gotten multiple independent confirmations that this is indeed the case. And yes, this is said to be the keystone of a partnership that Apple is likely to announce with Nuance at WWDC next month.

More specifically, we’re hearing that Apple is running Nuance software — and possibly some of their hardware — in this new data center. Why? A few reasons. First, Apple will be able to process this voice information for iOS users faster. Second, it will prevent this data from going through third-party servers. And third, by running it on their own stack, Apple can build on top of the technology, and improve upon it as they see fit.

We already know Apple’s interested in better speech tech. It bought Siri and has been soliciting speech-related engineers. If TechCrunch is right, it would be Apple’s foray into cloud-based speech tech. The company certainly has the money and know-how to grow another massive online service besides iTunes, App Stores, and MobileMe.

Proven Nuance speech technology hosted on Apple’s massive infrastructure? That’s a dream come true for a customer service app developer!

A company with a speech-enabled IVR can look into developing an iOS app that’s also speech-enabled, without having to burden the company’s speech servers. If the app can deliver on a better user experience with speech capabilities, can you imagine the number of calls reduced to the IVR? Phone calls and speech licenses are expensive, so divert these interactions to the app and through the user’s own monthly data subscription and Apple’s servers in N.C.

Plenty of companies already have their own iOS apps, but not many are focused on customer service. It’s time they think about the next version of their Company App — with speech.

Of course, this all hinges on Apple making the speech services unrestricted to developers. More reason to keep an eye on this year’s WWDC announcements. That is, if you’re passionate about better customer service, speech tech, and mobile apps.

Score one for open source peer-to-peer VOIP: GNU SIP Witch 1.0

Some folks have half-jokingly said that Skype is a good fit for Microsoft because both companies like proprietary technologies. There’s certainly some truth to that. Even though both of these companies enjoy great numbers of users, they are far from being proponents of open standards and technologies.

That’s why it’s important to spread the gospel of an open source project such as GNU Telephony:

GNU Telephony is a project to enable anyone to use free as in freedom software for telephony, and with the freedom to do so on any platform they choose to use. We also wish to make it easy to use the Internet for real-time voice and video communication, and in fact for all forms of real-time collaboration. Finally we wish to make it possible to communicate securely and in complete privacy by applying distributed cryptographic solutions. Our goal is to enable secure and private real-time communication worldwide over the Internet that is free as in freedom, and is also free as in no cost too!

Over the weekend the project released GNU SIP Witch 1.0, the first stable release of GNU SIP protocol provisioning and peer-to-peer call server. It’ll also be used in the “anti-Skype” open source project, GNU Free Call (covered here previously).

The acquisition of Skype by Microsoft has made some people nervous about the future of the popular VOIP service. This is exactly why open source projects are important and deserve our support.

The official announcement:

May 14, 2011 (Bayonne, NJ). We are distributing today a 1.0 release of the GNU SIP protocol provisioning and peer-to-peer call server, GNU SIP Witch. GNU SIP Witch is developed within GNU Telephony and has been selected for use in the GNU Free Call project. This will provide a stable release that we will support for existing applications while we actively develop GNU Free Call services.

GNU SIP Witch is available as part of the GNU project. Stable releases will also power a web site later this summer to provide initial worldwide secure calling services for free directly to the general public for use in conjunction with any ZRTP enabled standards compliant softphone applications and SIP devices. GNU SIP Witch can be used to deploy private secure calling networks, whether stand-alone or in conjunction with existing VoIP infrastructure, for private institutions and national governments.

GNU SIP Witch is distributed as free software, that is, it is licensed using the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 3 (or later), explicitly to provide others the freedom to use, modify, learn from, redistribute, and participate in it’s continued development, and can be obtained in source directly fromhttp://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/sipwitch. A number of GNU/Linux distributions already distribute GNU SIP Witch in binary form for easy installation. GNU SIP Witch is cross-platform and can also be built on Apple OS/X, BSD systems, and for Microsoft Windows. Future releases will also support Android devices for use in GNU Free Call. Our services and applications are intended to offer the benefits of software freedom on all common computing platforms.

GNU SIP Witch is a free software project and is being developed by volunteers from around the world. The Free Software Foundation and the GNU project provides technical, infrastructure, and organizational support for GNU SIP Witch development. Future work will focus on delivering GNU Free Call services such as self-organizing peer-to-peer calling networks directly to the desktop and mobile devices of users worldwide.

In conjunction with this release, the GNU Free Call project is distributing an initial release of our technological assistance package for common computing platforms by providing our switchview desktop client for use with GNU SIP Witch on your local machine. In the future TAP will enable multi-platform personal encryption, include further support for desktop and mobile secure calling, and provide other basic and common computing services missing on some platforms.

About the Free Software Foundation:
The Free Software Foundation, founded in 1985, is dedicated to promoting computer users’ right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. The FSF promotes the development and use of free (as in freedom) software—particularly the GNU operating system (used widely today in its GNU/Linux variant)— and free documentation. The FSF also helps to spread awareness of the ethical and political issues of freedom in the use of software. Their web site, located at http://www.gnu.org/, is an important source of information about GNU/Linux.

About GNU Free Call:
GNU Free Call is a project to develop and deploy secure self-organized communication services worldwide for private use and for public administration. We use the open standard SIP protocol and GNU SIP Witch to create secured peer-to-peer mesh calling networks, and we welcome all participation in our effort.

Contact Information:
Haakon Eriksen – Project Coordinator – haakon.eriksen at far.no
David Sugar – Project Architect – dyfet at gnu.org
Mailing List – Participation – sipwitch-devel at gnu.org


Cisco IP phones may be exploited to eavesdrop

As if Cisco needs any more negative publicity in light of the company’s recent developments… Reorganizing its consumer business, killing off Flip, missed earnings, layoff projections, and CEO John Chambers in the hot seat:


Now security researchers have demonstrated how easy it is to attack Cisco IP phones out-of-the-box to intercept calls or cause service disruptions via distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) methods. The vulnerability lies in the phone’s web service capabilities — a feature that Cisco recommends disabling in the user manual.

But who reads the manual in the real world, right? ITelecom administrators usually just open the box, take the phone out, and plug it into an Ethernet port. Done. That’s the beauty of the IP phone, as they’d say.

These IP phones are more prevalent in businesses now, in the office and even in the contact center where personal and often private data are handled. Such a security weakness in the phone should be taken seriously as there could be severe legal repercussions with leaked private information, or worse yet, finding out one day that all the phones in the company are out of service.

The best practice should be to harden these IP phones just as you would to a PC workstation. Things such as disabling certain services, configuring the firewall, etc. should not be overlooked.

Microsoft-Skype: Can Bates stand working for Ballmer?

So it’s official: Skype did not end up in Google or Facebook’s embrace; it now belongs to Microsoft, as CEO Tony Bates wrote on its blog.

I was hoping to see Skype go through with its IPO later this year as a master of its own destiny. A great company with a time-tested product, now we’re left wondering how Skype would’ve fared independently.

There’s a lot of techno-analyses on this $8.5 billion deal — the largest acquisition made by Microsoft. Will Live Messenger survive? Will Skype end up in Lync? Will Microsoft continue to support Skype on non-MS platforms (e.g. Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, etc.)? With this acquisition there will be many overlapping products, but Microsoft scores with owning Skype intellectual properties, especially in peer-to-peer communications — something quite useful for Microsoft’s cloud initiatives.

Some have questioned whether Skype itself will survive under the Redmond Giant, taking a page from history about the former glory days of Hotmail. Yahoo Mail and Gmail have pushed Hotmail into the preferred email service to receive spam and unwanted newsletters. Let’s hope Skype doesn’t end up in a similar fate as Hotmail.

My real question, however, is to CEO Tony Bates: What happened? Was the IPO pressure too great and the investors insisted on selling? They had the most to gain from the $8.5 billion sale in cold, hard Microsoft cash. According to GigaOm:

  • Using the $8.5 billion price as the likely sale price, eBay gets $2.55 billion for its 30 percent stake in Skype. So in the end, eBay did make money on the Skype deal.
  • Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the co-founders with their 14-percent stake, take home about $1.19 billion. Damn, these guys know how to double dip!
  • Silver Lake, Andreessen Horowitz and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) own 56 percent of the company and that stake is worth $4.76 billion.
  • Andreessen Horowitz had 3 percent of the deal and made $205 million profit on their $50 million initial investment.

I would think that Bates would’ve wanted to stay independent instead of getting sold. After all, he was formerly with Cisco and headed the enterprise groups, responsible for 80 percent of Cisco’s business and profits. Why would he leave the Cisco bureaucracy in hopes to enter another gigantic bureaucratic organization? He was thriving at the helm of Skype. Instead of reporting to John Chambers, now he’ll report to Steve Ballmer. Good luck with that.

To Microsoft: I don’t want to see a BSoD when I’m on Skype video with somebody, okay? Thanks.

As the BlackBerry World turns… Is it gaining any traction?

On the No Jitter blog, Michael Finneran of dBrn Associates offers a glimpse of optimism for RIM after attending BlackBerry World, the company’s annual conference:

I spent most of last week at BlackBerry World (formerly Wireless Enterprise Symposium), RIM’s annual industry event, and despite what you may have been reading in the trade press, the company is far from dead. They made several important announcements (including one truly surprising one), and focused considerable attention on the recently introduced PlayBook tablet.

But what does “far from dead” really mean? It’s certainly not thriving or growing, as recent earnings and sales data suggest. Is it just “getting by”? Or is it dying then? That’s what most bloggers posit. And there are lots of them who see RIM on a course to implosion (the best analysis I’ve read on this matter from Michael Mace).

Of course, at such a major company event, the executives and marketing folks want attendees to leave with the impression that BlackBerry devices create double rainbows and run on unicorn farts. I can see why Finneran also saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Evidently Steve Jobs isn’t the only CEO who can generate a “reality distortion field”…

But it’s kind of dangerous to link a company’s survival with the number of employees, partners, and traffic from a popular app:

The company is still a powerhouse with 17,500 employees worldwide and selling through 550 carriers in 170 countries; traffic on their BlackBerry Messenger service grew 332% last year. The company has scale and resources, but they can’t seem to shake the market perception that they are “stodgy” now that Apple and Android have burst onto the scene. They are taking steps to address the marketing problems. RIM’s chief marketing officer, Keith Pardy left the company in March after a two-year stay and on the eve of the PlayBook launch; he has not been replaced. Last Friday, Roger Baxter was appointed VP of brand and marketing communications, replacing Paul Kalbfleisch whose title had been VP of brand creativity.

Remember Nortel? Just three years ago Nortel employed over 32,000 workers globally and it had many partners as well as an established customer base. RIM still employs lots of people, but I’m not sure of its “powerhouse” status.

Admittedly, RIM does have a marketing problem, but that’s not the only problem. That’s not even the main problem. Look at the new phones it announced at the show. The Bold 9900 and 9930 to run the new BlackBerry 7 OS. It looks like the BlackBerry from five years ago but slimmer and shinier, and with a comparatively tiny touch screen (yes, it still has a physical keyboard). On the network side, it won’t support LTE but runs 802.11n WiFi on either the 2.4 or 5 GHz channels (iPhone’s 2.4 GHz-only WiFi is “useless for corporate deployments”). It will have NFC, however — RIM may beat Apple in that regard (but then there’s the rumor of OS 7 devices being delayed)…

And the best indicator of any sizable tech company in a struggle for survival? A closer partnership with Microsoft. It happened to Apple many years ago (Apple has since turned itself around), it happened to Nokia recently (results still yet to be seen), and now it’s happening to RIM.

Its flagship tablet, the PlayBook, isn’t basking in the glow of spectacular reviews, either. Plus, search through Craigslist and you’ll find plenty of PlayBooks (even brand new in box) for sale — below its retail price of $499 (16 GB WiFi base model). Even more troubling is seeing quite a few owners willing to trade the PlayBook to get another tablet such as the iPad or Xoom. Worse yet, it looks like RIM indeed rushed things to put the PlayBook on store shelves as BlackBerry Bridge — its centerpiece connectivity software to link to a BlackBerry smartphone — wasn’t even delivered to AT&T until a few days before launch.

RIM definitely needs to improve on its execution to prevent a BlackBerry world collapse. Consumers love choices and options, and a market without BlackBerrys would indeed be a very, very sad place.

Apple and Nuance said to be in negotiations

TechCrunch is reporting that Apple and Nuance have been talking in recent months — most likely about a partnership:

Apple has been negotiating a deal with Nuance in recent months, we’ve heard from multiple sources. What does that mean? Well, it could mean an acquisition, but that is looking fairly unlikely at this point, we hear. More likely, it means a partnership that will be vital to both companies and could shape the future of iOS.

If you’ve worked with contact center applications in the past few years, you’re probably somewhat familiar with speech technology, and no doubt have heard of Nuance. Coming from a contact center background, it’s sort of refreshing to hear and use speech recognition on my smartphone. Google even baked speech reco into its latest Chrome browser (run a cool demo here, Chrome 11 required).

Late last year Apple posted open positions for voice and speech experts, and now six months later there are rumors of a possible acquisition or partnership deal with Nuance, the top speech technology vendor.

Yes, speech technology is making quite a comeback, especially if it’s catching Apple’s eye.