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EUROMAP Article Nederlandse versie
Flanders speaking

Flanders speaking

quote ?Some may have thought that the worldwide pusher for speech technology was molded in Flemish clay ?unquote

quote ?The 'language valley' has turned silent ? unquote

Related articles

? Immortal Code
Wired Feb 2003

Related links

? Scansoft

? Dragon NaturallySpeaking v.6

? RealSpeak TTS


EC Projects with ex-L&H participation

? DICOPRO: On-Line Dictionary Consultation For Language Professionals On Intranet

? EUROWORDNET: Building a multilingual wordnet database with semantic relations between words

? SENSUS: Language Technologies for Police and Emergency Services

? SPEECHDAT: Speech Databases for Creation of Voice Driven Teleservices

? SPEECHDAT-CAR: Speech Databases for Voice Driven Teleservices and Control in Automotive Environments

? SPEECON: Speech Driven Interfaces for Consumer Applications

? VODIS: Advanced Speech Technologies for Voice-operated Driver Information Systems

Plus ?a change...

quote ?Commercially, ScanSoft sells its products 'in the box' and under license, just as L&H did.? unquote

quote ?ScanSoft develops its technologies incrementally, as did L&H. Since the takeover no significant changes have been made in strategy or technology.?unquote

By Luc De Smet, independent journalist

It requires a pusher to put a technology on the map. Some may have thought that the worldwide pusher for speech technology was molded in Flemish clay. The Belgian company Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) grew fast and wide. Its road to success was based on ever-faster growth. Today, the technologies which were once bundled in Ypres have found refuge elsewhere. The 'language valley' has turned silent. It will not become the world center of ten language campuses something that was in the planning not so long ago. The bankruptcy of L&H coincided with the general malaise in the world of hi-tech. The market is less heated now than it used to be. But the strategies of those who took over are not less inspired.

"When we took over L&H on 12 December 2001, it fitted with our strategic planning," says Mark Erwich, Marketing Director International at ScanSoft. ScanSoft already leads the market in OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and document management with products such as OmniPage, PaperPort and OmniForm. "We bid for the three core technologies of L&H." He refers to RealSpeak (TTS or speech synthesis), automatic speech recognition (ASR, multilingual speaker independent recognition) and the dictation technology (Dragon NaturallySpeaking). ScanSoft did not go for the translation technology nor for the intelligent content management. The 'human translation' service that L&H owned?as a result of the takeover of Mendez?had already been split off and sold to Bowne.

When ScanSoft took over L&H it committed itself to take on 150 employees of the company. "We took on most of the people involved in research and development. Eventually the figure rose to 220, which is more than half of all L&H employees." In Belgium most of them are working at the O&O-department in Merelbeke near Ghent. They are mainly linguists and computer language experts, but also software engineers, programmers, system analysts and specialists in speech synthesis and speech recognition. Markets in the Far East that Scansoft previously addressed through its US operation now use the commercial channels that L&H set up in Asia.

Twenty one languages and ... counting

Computers would grow smaller, cheaper and ubiquitous. That was the vision of L&H. The 'invisible' computer would have speech as its only practical interface. L&H worked on languages with market potential, that is, languages spoken by large groups or those with economically viable markets. In this context, the so-called LDC's (Language Development Companies) were to develop some twenty languages using the L&H development methodology. CLDC (Cross-Language Development Companies) were also set up to develop automatic machine translation for language pairs. IAC's (Intelligent Agent Companies) would design search robots.

In 1998 L&H started recruiting people within these structures. Three years on "we had to part with a lot of them," says Jan Odijk who worked at L&H since 1997. Now he is senior director of Linguistic Resources Speech and Language Technologies at ScanSoft. L&H had employed several people for most languages. When in 2001 the problems arose and the financial structure around the LDCs started to leak, L&H took over the projects that had reached maturity, such as Polish and Turkish. Work was halted on newer languages, such as Hindi and Vietnamese.

When ScanSoft took over L&H, it held on to products L&H had already developed, projects at advanced stages of development and anything else that had market potential. ScanSoft developed these further. It recently released RealSpeak in Polish. Since the takeover ScanSoft has released new versions of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and RealSpeak. These were better quality and had new features. "We've got over twenty languages, now," says Erwich of ScanSoft. Some 250 people are active in R&D. The company has development activities in the USA, Merelbeke (Belgium) and Budapest (Hungary).


Back in 2000 L&H bought Dictaphone, the American leader in dictation systems that was particularly well established in the medical world. Shortly afterwards the company also brought home its competitor Dragon, one of the strongest American producers of speech recognition software. Dragon had its product Dragon NaturallySpeaking on the shelves right next to L&H's own VoiceXpress. It also had a foothold in banking with its data mining technology, which swiftly locates particular strings ('key words') in stored conversations. L&H merged VoiceXpress and NaturallySpeaking into one product and brought it to the market as Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

ScanSoft developed that product further and upgraded it to Windows XP, both as a Preferred edition for the home user and the Professional version for the professional market. It also markets licenses of the dictation software and a software developer's kit (SDK). "Dictaphone was a client of L&H and is a client of ScanSoft now."

Commercially, ScanSoft sells its products 'in the box' and under license, just as L&H did. Licenses for RealSpeak TTS-technology, according to ScanSoft's annual report?"the most distributed TTS motor in the world"?are a source of regular revenue. "With RealSpeak we emphasize software development kits," says Erwich. There are kits for integrating TTSs in mobile and server applications. One of the differences between L&H and ScanSoft is that the latter "has a stronger focus on its markets and technologies."

Lost knowledge for speech technology

From time to time a dozen or so ex-L&H colleagues meet for a barbecue, a glass of beer... Numbers are shrinking. "Some just want to leave it all behind. Before, it was a good reference to have worked for L&H. There is no doubt that knowledge was lost for speech technology. Today hardly half of the number of people once involved with language technology still are," says Peter Spyns.

Peter Spyns Spyns (36) is a graduate in Roman Philology and holds a doctorate in Information Sciences. He worked in dialogue systems for L&H corporate research and development for three years. Then he worked for a joint venture with Intel, followed by a year at Professional Services. "Until the bitter end." Now he is researching 'ontologies' at the STARLab of the Applied Information Technologies group of the Free University of Brussels (VUB).

Uncertainties about the future of L&H lasted for about a year-and-a-half. Some employees?even people with a track record?who left before the actual bankruptcy, were sacked from their new jobs when the ICT crisis peaked only months later. Some 40% made it to ScanSoft. Some started as independents or freelancers. A systems manager and a consultant started working for ScanSoft as subcontractors.

Spyns figures ScanSoft in Belgium now employs a little less than 100 people of L&H. ScanSoft took over the core of Dragon in Burlington (USA) and the RealSpeak production team. Some found work in speech technology elsewhere. Four L&H people went to Babel in Mons. Dialoca, a French firm active in automobile telematics, set up a Belgian branch and attracted a handful of ex-L&Hers. Three others now work on voice portals and telephony applications. A handful started Alturion.

Computer scientists landed in totally different sectors: at Traficon (object recognition with traffic applications), ICT Portal/HIT Services (network and computer infrastructure), EasyComputing (CRM products, service software), Barco... One even works for a social service. Others, like Spyns, returned to university. You'll find ex-L&H people at the VUB (Free University of Brussels), UA (Antwerp University) and the KULeuven (Catholic University of Louvain). An informatician and an engineer teach at a high school. One went to Leeds (UK) with a scholarship to get a doctorate.

"Linguists were in a weaker position," said Spyns. In Ypres some fifty linguists were still at L&H when the curtain fell. Three linguists, who were working on text-to-speech, went to competitor Rhetorical Systems in Edinburgh. A specialist of Arabic languages now works for the city administration of Ghent. One linguist of Japanese is active in the printing sector, another deals with requests for subsidies, another works for a health service... "Those with computer skills moved towards average computer jobs much more easily."

The native speakers, needed to develop certain languages in the LDCs, had a hard time: Turks, an Indian, Koreans, a Japanese, an Iranian, Scandinavians, Ukrainians, Russians... Some moved back to their country of origin. Others continued their journey. Still others stayed.

Post- L&H (#1)


ScanSoft develops its technologies incrementally?an evolutionary approach?as did L&H. Since the takeover no significant changes have been made in strategy or technology. "Sometimes leaps are made," says Odijk who recognizes L&H made a qualitative jump when it moved from TTS3000 to RealSpeak. "All of a sudden we had a good, human-sounding voice." As soon as L&H had its technology running on big servers, the aim became to move towards smaller platforms.

"ScanSoft continues what L&H started. That has resulted in the product RealSpeak Compact, an SDK that runs on small systems under Windows CE. The same goes for dictation systems. For example, L&H's plans for new functionalities have now been implemented in Dragon NaturallySpeaking. In automatic speech recognition L&H had decided to focus less on the telecom market and to move towards the 'embedded' mobile and automotive world. "ScanSoft continues on the same track."

Small footprint?

"We try to make the technology ever more compact?for so-called 'small footprint' devices?but stick to one operating system to manage the cost of research," says Erwich. ScanSoft is a Gold Certified partner of Microsoft. "We are involved in the product development of the TabletPC. For Microsoft?which integrated the technology of L&H and of ScanSoft in OfficeXP?it was merely handy that ScanSoft took over L&H."

ScanSoft, a spin-off of Xerox, uses strict management procedures in its development processes. Intensive communication with clients also results in important improvements in some product groups. 'Focus' and 'dominance' are key to ScanSoft's product strategy. As L&H did before, ScanSoft aims to lead the market in its core businesses. That is already the case with its OCR technology. Erwich puts the market share of RealSpeak at a stable 57%. "In essence, the volume of the market has not changed. Some small providers have entered the market lately, but they are more competitors to each other than to the major players."

Has the takeover of a bankrupt company had any negative side-effects for ScanSoft? "The L&H technology was highly regarded by everyone. ScanSoft enjoys the positive image that comes with that. We have not changed the core of this technology." ScanSoft grows and wants to continue doing so in a controlled fashion. With the technology of L&H?now ScanSoft?it can play trumps. "Clients do not want a different engine for each new language. The expandability of our solution, growing globalization and concentration of the market will only reinforce our position."

Alturion - On the road with speech integration

Ron Schuermans "Our application is ready to integrate speech synthesis," says Ron Schuermans, managing director of , set up in November of 2001 by ex-employees of L&H. This Belgian company built a GPS-navigation system for notebooks and PDA's that runs on PocketPC and Windows. It guides drivers to their destination by voice. Alturion took out a license on RealSpeak, the text-to-speech engine of L&H?now ScanSoft?and uses it to dynamically generate spoken language: Dutch, Flemish, French, German and English. Spanish and Italian are also planned. Drivers can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel while directions are provided through the speakers.

"We'll offer a version developers can integrate as an interface in other solutions." At present Alturion produces just the sound files for the application. "We do not yet support speech recognition," says Schuermans. "The quality of recognition is limited by the processors, and microphones are not capable of filtering out enough random noise. Currently, continuous speech only performs optimally in professional environments, such as the medical and legal world."

Own way

In March 2002 the company reached a deal with Compaq to bundle its solution with a GPS receiver and a 128 MB memory card and to market the package as the Compaq iPAQ GPS navigation system. Two months later Alturion entered the Benelux market with its own application?the Alturion GPS Standard?that is compatible with most PocketPCs. "The response was overwhelming." PDAs are rapidly becoming viable alternatives for notebooks, and they are less expensive to maintain.

Alturion wants to get rid of its L&H label, even though the four founders were all trained in the Flanders' Language Valley. The company has set out its own course and integrates communication between the mobile equipment and the home base. 'Location based services' are a next step. Another application could be the 'speaking Internet'. The company builds new applications around its triple core expertise: GPS, speech and data communication. "We'll probably be profitable in our first fiscal year."

Post- L&H (#2)

Luc De Smet
Luc De Smet

is an independent journalist, with a background in peace research, having worked for Pax Christi Flanders, for International Peace Information Service in Antwerp, and later at the Life & Peace Institute in Uppsala (Sweden). He writes on a broad range of topics including the economy, management, human resources, industry, logistics, environment and technology matters.

The editors of HLTCentral would welcome any feedback on the article. Please send your comments to the .

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of EUROMAP site or its editors. Copyright ? 2002 HLTCentral. All rights reserved.

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