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Opinion Articles

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

SpinVox visit offers a few clues about the technology

Mark Bridge writes:

So, dear reader, let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, a mere five years ago, there was SpinVox. A company created with help from entrepreneur Christina Domecq – whose surname offers a clue to her family’s background – and Daniel Doulton, the man behind the Psion series 5. (Sherry and portable computers; two of my favourite products. But I digress).

The company’s promise was simple: to turn voicemail messages into SMS text messages.

As I see it, they created a service that was designed to evolve as technology did. My assumption is that pretty much every message would be heard by human operators in the early days – but as voice-to-text translation improved, more and more messages would be handled by computers.

Of course, the company didn’t want its customers to think their messages were being heard by call centre staff. That's the job of Vodafone’s Respond Plus service. So it talked about messages only being heard by humans when the technology wasn’t able to decipher them… without mentioning that its technology really didn’t understand that much.

Some people believed this meant that most voice messages were turned into SMS by computers. Some didn’t.

And then, one foul day, mocoNews interviewed Christina Domecq and asked about that conversion process. They said “I assumed the service worked purely by algorithm, but apparently there’s a lot of human transcription”. Next, before you knew it, Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC was also on the case. People started talking about data protection and finances as well.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, SpinVox issued a couple of statements in an attempt to defuse the situation and then - when the BBC didn't go away quietly - invited a crowd of techy people to see what was happening. They weren’t allowed to record anything, just to watch, ask questions and play with the technology.

That visit took place yesterday. I’d have loved to have been there but I’m on holiday this week and didn’t get an invitation anyway. Not that I wouldn’t mind a visit next time. But I digress. Again.

The media response – which, I’m sure is the bit you’re interested in – is what I’d describe as “towards the negative end of mixed”. It looks like those techy people didn’t get any answers to the questions that had been bothering them. The big one is “What percentage of calls are handled by operators?” – and SpinVox says it’s commercially sensitive.

Milo Yiannopoulos from TechCrunch left a test message and was surprised to discover that “the agent in the room had to listen to and manually type the entire message, from beginning to end”. Not a single word was apparently translated by the computer system, although company CIO Rob Wheatley had successfully demonstrated SpinVox’s speech-to-text technology earlier in the day. In fact, The Register pointed out that all of the day’s test messages except Rob Wheatley’s demo required manual interpretation “pretty much in their entirety”. And that’s to say nothing of the awkward financial questions they wanted answered.

Which, in summary, means we’ve probably not seen the last SpinVox headline this year – or even this month.

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5 comments on article "SpinVox visit offers a few clues about the technology"

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Steorm

8/6/2009 7:05 AM

Your narrative provides a pretty good summary, but what led to the MocoNews interview a couple weeks ago was that the company, which had raised $200m, was asking employees to take stock instead of salary because it was running out of cash.

It was the abiility to raise so much money that made Christina Domecq and SpinVox so famous in the first place. Exactly like her disasterous experience a few years earlier in the US where should got national press coverage for raising funds to start a new business, only to see it crash into bankruptcy. www.allbusiness.com/government/government-bodies-offices-law-courts-tribunals/10602370-1.html


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Mark

8/6/2009 7:05 AM

Ben & Dan from The Really Mobile Project have just published a report on their visit. They say "The presentation and demo made no attempt to address the most serious allegations against SpinVox", "The demo, even under controlled circumstances, failed to demonstrate anything more than very basic automated transcription"and "We are amazed they believed this demonstration would support their claims and even more amazed they chose only to focus on the technical". thereallymobileproject.com/2009/08/spinvox-demo-day/


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Mark

8/9/2009 10:51 AM

James Middleton from telecoms.com was in the second group of attendees: www.telecoms.com/13439/spinvox-behind-the-spin
He ends his report "I’ve come away feeling that SpinVox is much more reliant on humans than it would have you believe, and if that is the case, I have doubts as to whether it has a scalable and cost effective business model".


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Mark

8/10/2009 3:56 PM

The BBC reports on a "dossier alleging financial irregularities", adding "It is thought the company has called in accounting consultants and lawyers to investigate the allegations".
news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8193263.stm


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The Fonecast

8/19/2009 8:49 AM

The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones sums up his recent thoughts about SpinVox: www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2009/08/spinvox_why_it_matters.html

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