Wildfire at Your Beck and Call

A voice-activated telephone assistant that minds you and your messages

By Joseph Kornowski

Joseph Kornowski is associate executive director and general counsel for the Los Angeles County Bar Association. He can be reached on the Internet at JKornowski@msn.com.

With all of the hype about PCs and the Internet these days, many of us have turned cynical about computer technology, which still works mainly when computer users bang on a keyboard or move a palm-sized piece of plastic across a foam pad as they stare into a glorified TV screen. Meanwhile, the same technological strides that have given us sound and animation on the Web also have breathed new life into a tool that has been around a while: the telephone. In fact, putting "life" into the telephone is exactly what you will think the people at Virtuosity have done with their voice-activated electronic telephone assistant (TelAssistant) service called Wildfire. The new voice-activated TelAssistant offers the combined benefits and flexibility of a voice-mail system, receptionist, and scheduling secretary at a fraction of the cost.

Dialing your Wildfire account is as simple as accessing a voice-mail box, except after Wildfire announces that it is your telephonic assistant and prompts you to enter your passcode, and after you say, "It's me, Wildfire" and enter your code, she--rather, it--greets you with, "Oh, hi! What can I do for you?" At this point, you begin a voice-based interchange, termed a "session," with the female voice of the Wildfire TelAssistant (an optional male-voiced version is in development). Wildfire has been trained to recognize natural words and to act on specific commands to perform such functions as calling someone in your list of "contacts" (your personal phone book) or updating your schedule so that Wildfire knows at what number to reach you to forward calls or remind you of tasks. (For an example of a typical session with Wildfire that would occur after dialing into your account, see the box on this page.)

With Wildfire, there's no need to write telephone messages on scraps of paper, search pocket address books for telephone numbers, or struggle to dial the numbers on your cellular telephone as you drive in stop-and-go traffic. As long as you have given Wildfire your correct schedule, complete with telephone numbers for all the places you will be, including mobile phone, home, and office numbers, and give Wildfire instructions to call you, it will call you, for example, the following morning at 8 am to remind you to call Sally Smith, which you will do by giving Wildfire the "call" command.

Although Wildfire operates continuously, its capabilities are limited. But the list of what it does is impressive:

  • Screens, routes, and announces all callers on any telephone, including car and pay telephones.
  • "Whispers" so that only you can hear during a telephone conversation that you have another call, giving you the option of placing the current caller on hold if the new call is important.
  • Manages a "virtual phonebook" of contacts (person, place, or group) that you can dial--at work, home, car, or mobile numbers--by voice commands.
  • Offers callers a single Wildfire telephone number to contact you wherever you are, according to the schedule of times and telephone numbers you have programmed into Wildfire.
  • Schedules and reminds you of to-do projects and follow-up calls.
  • Allows you to handle five or more calls from anywhere, providing you with access to multiple telephone lines simultaneously, without installing special hardware.
  • Handles typical voice-mail messaging features such as reply, copy, broadcast, etc.
  • Provides access to members in your organization through the use of the "virtual hallway" feature, which can connect you with other members who happen to be in "session" with Wildfire at the same time.

An optional feature also allows you to send back-up messages to an alphanumeric pager.

Wildfire may begin to sound more intrusive than most busy professionals would like, but consider that 1) you can always tell Wildfire that you will be "unavailable," directing callers to leave you a message; and 2) you can actually increase your privacy and anonymity (and not compromise that of others) by handling all incoming calls through call forwarding, and all outgoing calls through Wildfire. And, if you call someone through Wildfire from a mountain hideaway while you are on summer vacation, for example, caller ID will not show your telephone number to the person you have called.

What are the downsides to Wildfire? For one thing, you can only use Wildfire with a touchtone telephone. Despite the fact that Wildfire uses automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology, which incorporates speaker-independent vocabularies to convert the words you speak into computer-understandable commands, some information, such as your passcode, should only be communicated to Wildfire through a telephone touchpad.

Also, ASR technology is not perfect, though it is getting better all the time, and you must train Wildfire in specified vocabularies by repeating phrases and commands that Wildfire says in the training mode. Such vocabulary training needs to be repeated for each different calling environment in which Wildfire is likely to hear your voice. Thus, if you want to use Wildfire from your cellular or car telephone against the background sounds of the freeway and your car's engine, for example, or your office speaker telephone or home telephone, then you must conduct vocabulary training on each of those telephones, which can be tedious and time-consuming (each training session lasts approximately 15 minutes).

Another limitation of ASR technology is that it only hears words that are spoken in the same way they were during the vocabulary training. So, unless you were eating, chewing gum, slurring, laughing, or pronouncing your training words strangely, Wildfire will give you a "bleep" that means "huh?" if you do those things while giving Wildfire verbal commands. In short, speak clearly and normally. Sometimes even when you believe you have done so, Wildfire does not register the word or command, so you must repeat it. One reason for this is that Wildfire uses a number of generic vocabularies taken from many people saying the same command so that a user does not have to train Wildfire how he or she says each and every command. However, this can result in occasional misrecognition based on the userís voice or accent. Custom-training of vocabularies should improve this problem if it is bothersome.

How much will all this cost you? That depends on your needs. For unlimited usage, the basic rate is $379 per month (plan C), which also includes a 25 percent discount on long-distance charges and free contact-file setup with a disk provided by the user. The plan recommended for most users (plan A) costs $139 per month for 700 minutes of TelAssistant usage per month, a 20 percent discount on additional TelAssistant usage exceeding the 700 minutes, and a 20 percent discount on long-distance charges. Local and zone 1 through 3 calls are free with all plans. An intermediate plan (B) costs $249 per month for 1,500 minutes per month, 25 percent discount on usage over the 1,500 minutes per month, 25 percent discount on long distance charges and free contact-file setup. Widlfire may not be cheap, but it provides many benefits of a receptionist, secretary, and voice-mail system for those who cannot afford to hire support staff and install an expensive telephone system. Wildfire is a good example of technology that can be leveraged by solo and part-time practitioners to remain competitive.

In the future, Virtuosity also plans to integrate software applications such as time-and-billing programs with Wildfire so that an attorney might say, "Wildfire, bill them three hours. We spoke about . . ." With further development of ASR systems, this kind of telephone technology could catch on like, well, you know.

For further information, contact Virtuosity at 520 Washington Blvd., Suite 908, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292; or call (310) 574-0574. For a demonstration of Wildfire, call (213) 461-WILD.

A Conversation with Wildfire

The following dialog is an example of a typical session with Wildfire upon dialing into your account and dictating to the TelAssistant various commands and instructions.

Wildfire: You have one new message from John Jones.
User: Describe it.
Wildfire: This message arrived at 2:45 in the afternoon. They left a phone number: 555-1234.
User: What did it say? [Message is played.] Give them a call.
Wildfire: At the number they gave me? Yes or no?
User: Yes.
Wildfire: Dialing… Press 44 when you want to hang up the call. [Call goes through, you talk to John Jones, who suggests that you give Sally Smith a call the following morning at 8. You wait for John Jones to hang up or press 44 on the telephone touchpad]. Done.
User: Remind me to call.
Wildfire: Remind you to call whom? Say the name of one or your contacts or say, "phone number."
User: Sally Smith.
Wildfire: Remind you when? Ask me, "What are my options?" to hear some examples.
User: Tomorrow.
Wildfire: At what time?
User: 8.
Wildfire: Morning or evening?
User: Morning.
Wildfire: Tomorrow at 8 in the morning, is that correct?
Yes or no?
User: Yes.
Wildfire: Should I know the topic for the call? Yes or no?
User: No.
Wildfire: Got it. Iíll set my watch alarm. If you need the pending reminder, say "find."
User: Goodbye, Wildfire.
Wildfire: You'll be at work until 6, is that correct? Yes or no?
User: Yes.
Wildfire: Got it. Thank you. Goodbye.