Rhetorical & Broca Networks Speech Technologies at Lastminute.com
This success story features how two UK speech technology companies, Edinburgh University spin-off Rhetorical Systems and Broca Networks, teamed to provide a speech-enabled information service for Lastminute.com, one of the UK's most popular web destinations.
Rhetorical Systems was established in April 2000 when entrepreneur Peter Denyer provided angel funding and acted as the catalyst to bring together the two strands of key research taking place at Edinburgh University: speech synthesis and language technologies. The researchers involved saw the commercial benefits of their research and built rVoice, an advanced text-to-speech (TTS) software solution which is widely recognised to be the best on the market.
rVoice has been successfully deployed in a variety of settings, including the first UK football club's VoiceWeb and Lastminute.com's hotel reservation service. Rhetorical has formed retailing alliances with industry giants Nuance and Philips, and has also partnered with UK-based company Broca Networks to supply rVoice more widely.
Broca Networks and Rhetorical's speech technologies are at the forefront of a growing trend to provide innovative speech interface solutions for Internet applications, and for call centre enhancement.
One such example is Lastminute.com, which has employed the technologies involved in the Rhetorical/Broca partnership to enable the voice interface platform and speech synthesis capabilities for their new automated hotel reservation service. The service is billed to offer a selection of the best offers at over 1000 hotels across Europe.
Text-to-Speech and rVoice
By combining speech synthesis with text technologies, rVoice uses powerful text analysers to ensure that the synthesiser can correctly read out abbreviations and numbers, while skipping email headers and other non-textual information. Input text can also be annotated to indicate which words should be emphasised or when to switch to a different voice.
Ian Hodson, Director of Software Engineering at Rhetorical says "The applications for TTS are extremely wide and varied. So we've worked hard to make rVoice compatible with an unrivalled set of platforms and industry APIs, according to the customer's needs". Broca Networks design voice applications so they need to employ spot-on TTS systems.
Rhetorical's system is particularly attractive because of rVoice capabilities to implement new voices in a short turnaround time. This aspect is essential for a customer base that demands ultimate control over its brand image and doesn't want off-the-shelf voices.
Claire Tidswell at Broca states that this collaboration came about because "as far as Broca are concerned the TTS engine offered by Rhetorical was certainly the best on the market. After looking at Rhetorical and their competitors, it was a fairly straightforward choice".
Lastminute.com Director of VoiceWeb, Dominic Cameron, has said, "There are exciting opportunities emerging in voice-automated and multimodal commerce. Voice recognition and synthetic speech technologies are making rapid progress and allowing us to envisage entirely new ways of meeting our customer's needs". In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, he also explained, "We chose Rhetorical because it offered by far the most sophisticated and subtle text to speech technology we could discover."
The hotel booking service - the first such consumer retail application to use and combine advanced speech recognition and 'text-to-speech' technologies - answers customers calls through Broca's voice interface platform. Caller's speech is then converted into text, using Nuance Communications software, which is then used to search for available inventory. The hotel offers are then spoken back to the customer by two voices. The first is a female broadcaster whose speech is concatenated to guide the caller, list hotels and give pricing information. The second uses Rhetorical's rVoice speech synthesis technology to read descriptive information about the hotels. This truly collaborative service has also involved the Centre for Communication Interface Research at the University of Edinburgh.
Lastminute.com has been able to take advantage of a successful technology transfer case (i.e. technology which makes it from the research base into the marketplace) to power a real, commercially based service that yields key benefits:
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