Is Voice Activation Unsafe?   October 15th, 2014

A couple of news headlines have appeared recently asserting that voice activation is unsafe. I thought it was time for Sensory to weigh in on a few aspects of this since we are the pioneers in voice activation:

  1. In-Car Speech Recognition. There have been a few studies like AAA/U of Utah
    The headlines from these studies claim speech recognition creates distraction while driving. Other recent studies have shown that voice recognition in the car is one of the biggest complaints. But if you read into these studies carefully, what you really find are several important aspects:

    • What they call “hands free” is not 100% TrulyHandsfree. It requires touch to activate so right there I agree it can take your eyes of the road, and potentially your hands off the wheels.
    • It’s really bad UX design that is distracting and not the speech recognition per se.
    • It’s not that people don’t want speech recognition. It’s that they don’t want speech recognition that fails all the time.

    Here’s my conclusion on all this denigration of in-car speech recognition: there are huge problems with what the automotive companies have been deploying. The UX is bad and the speech recognition is bad. That doesn’t mean that speech recognition is not needed in the car…on the contrary, what’s needed is good speech recognition implemented in good design.

    From my own experience it isn’t just that the speech recognition is bad and the UX is bad. The flaky Bluetooth connections and the problems of changing phones adds to the perception of speech not working. When I’m driving, I use speech recognition all the time, and it’s GREAT, but I don’t use the recognizer in my Lexus…I use my MotoX with the always on trigger, and then with Google Now, I can make calls or listen to music, etc.

  2. Lack of Security. The CTO of AVG blasted speech recognition because it is unsafe.Now I previously resisted the temptation to comment on this, because the CTO’s boss (the CEO) is on my board of directors. I kind of agree and I kind of disagree with the CTO. I agree that speech recognition CAN BE unsafe…that’s EXACTLY why we add speaker verification into our wake up triggers…then ONLY the right person can get in. It’s really kind of surprising to me that Apple and Google haven’t done this yet! On the other hand, there are plenty of tasks that don’t really require security. The idea of a criminal lurking outside my home and controlling my television screen seemed more humorous than scary. In the case of TVs, I do think password protection is great but it’s really more for the purpose of identifying who is using the television and to call up their favorites, their voice adapted templates, and their restrictions (if any) on what they can watch AND how long they can watch…yeah I’m thinking about my kids and their need to get homework done. :-)

Way to go Moto Voice   September 5th, 2014

I was very excited to hear Motorola’s announcements today about the new Moto X, MotoG, Moto Hint and Moto 360.

What particularly caught my ear was the statement that they were changing the name from Touchless Control to Moto Voice.  They made this decision because so many people thought the technology came from Google in the form of Android, and Moto wanted everyone to know it DIDN’T come from Google.

Actually…It came from Sensory.  At least we were an important part of it!!! We have been working on the cool new user defined triggers and are excited that Moto has adopted them for the flagship MotoX (Write-up).

This feature was announced in our TrulyHandsfree 3.0

The new Moto Hint headset is really cool too. It’s a bit like Intel’s Jarvis headset that was announced by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at CES (and of course uses Sensory!). Here’s a release we did a while back that tells about the technology deployed to connect a Bluetooth headset to a handset through a seamless voice command sequence, Press Release.

Of course the Moto360 is AWESOME, and has some pretty cool voice control features. Yes, Sensory has done an “OK Google” trigger…we even benchmarked our trigger against Google’s…I might share the results in an upcoming blog if there is interest.

I Love Robots!   July 31st, 2014

Yeah, I grew up in an era of watching robots on TV and in the movies, and reading about them in books and comic strips. They were and still are a part of our media culture. My goal in life has been to live in a Jetsons-like world! Well, not really, but I do have a film slide of Rosie the Maid up on my wall, and the mod, Googie, mid-century future style from the Jetsons is definitely my style.

It’s been fun at Sensory to be part of a robot revolution in toys. We have put speech technologies into over 50 robotic creatures from dolls to strange new alien things like Furby. When Aibo first shipped, we had half a dozen companies come to us with awesome designs for new low cost robotic dogs that could respond to their masters’ voices!

Here’s a fun realistic looking robot dog – Scamps.  Sensory was in this a few years ago, and it seems to be enjoying a huge comeback in 2014.

More recently we were in Intel’s “Jarvis” headset…When we first created the Jarvis trigger, I didn’t get the name. Then I saw the movie Ironman! :-)

Sensory has designed a lot of robotic technologies beyond speech recognition and synthesis. We have platforms such as sound sourcing, where a robot with two mics can locate the speaker through triangulation. We have sonic networking as a low cost wireless protocol so robots can take commands from TV commercials or YouTube videos or even other robots. We even have made lip synchronization approaches and pitch detection technologies so robots can mimic their owners in a fun and playful way.

The rise of robotic vacuum and window cleaners and non-toy robotic applications is really Neato (yeah that’s a pun!) Of course there have been a lot of beer delivery home robots over the years too, but none of them are making it into the mainstream.

The magic however has not yet really hit, because I want the fun, playfulness, and interactivity of the toys but with utility added in, so it really is more like the Jetsons or Lost in Space.

Jibo is a new robot that might foot this bill, and it seems that I’m not the only one that likes the concept,  as it is getting pretty close to being one of the Top 10 funded Indiegogo campaigns of all time!

Spoofing Biometrics   July 25th, 2014

I see a bit of irony that a great Saturday Night Live alumnus is launching a campaign to decrease spoofing. I’m talking about Senator Al Franken, who has been looking into the problem of stolen fingerprints, see article.

Senator Franken challenges Samsung and Apple with some fair concerns about the problem of stolen or spoofed biometrics. The issue is that most biometrics that could be stolen can’t be easily replaced. We only have one face, two eyes, and 10 fingers, so not a lot of chances to replace or change them if they are stolen.

The mobile phone companies, challenged on the fingerprint issue, had two responses:

  1. The biometric data is ON DEVICE. This is very important because when it’s stored in the clouds it becomes much more accessible to a hacker AND much more desirable because the payoff is a whole lot of user information. Cloud security is often hacked into, such as the recent break-in of the European Central Bank. In fact many banks I have spoken to insist that passwords can’t be stored in the clouds because they are just too easy to hack that way.
  2. The fingerprint biometric is not stored as a fingerprint image, but as some sort of mathematical representation. I’m not sure I understand this argument because if the digital representation can be copied and replicated, then the system is cracked whether or not it looks like a fingerprint.

I think Franken is right to question the utility of biometric fingerprints, because a product like Sensory’s TrulySecure (combining voice and vision authentication) offers a large number of advantages:

  1. The TrulySecure biometric is not easy to copy or find. Unlike a fingerprint which gets left everywhere, a voice print with a video image of a person saying a particular phrase is NOT easy to find, and even if well recorded, would fall apart with Sensory’s anti-spoofing technology that requires a live image.
  2. The TrulySecure biometric is readily changeable. Unlike the nine chances that a user has to replace a fingerprint, there are a virtually unlimited number of TrulySecure password phrases that can be used. If by some nearly impossible chance a TrulySecure biometric phrase is copied, it can be changed in a matter of seconds and a virtually unlimited number of times.
  3. TrulySecure works across conditions. Every biometric seems to have a failure mode. Fingerprint sensors seem to require a highly directionalized swipe of a very clean finger. If I cut my finger or have a little peanut butter on it, it just doesn’t work. Likewise a voiceprint by itself might fail in high noise, and a faceprint might fail in low lighting, but that magical dual biometric fusion in TrulySecure seems immune to conditions.

Here’s a demo I gave to UberGizmo in a somewhat dark and very noisy hotel lobby. I like this demo because it shows a real world situation and how FAST TrulySecure works.

Here’s a more canned demo on Sensory’s home page that better showcases some of the anti-spoofing features.

Random Blogger Thoughts   June 30th, 2014

  • TrulySecure™ is now announced!!!! This is the first on device fusion of voice and vision for authentication, and it really works AMAZINGLY well. I’m so proud of our new computer vision team and in Sensory’s expansion from speech recognition to speech and vision technologies. Now we are much more than “The Leader in Speech Technologies for Consumer Electronics”- we are “The Leader in Speech and Vision Technology for Consumer Products!” Hey check out the new TrulySecure video on our home page, and our new TrulySecure Product Brief. We hope and expect that TrulySecure will have the same HUGE impact on the market as Sensory had with TrulyHandsfree, the technology that pioneered always on touch less control!
  • Google I/O. Android wants to be everywhere: in our cars, in our homes, and in our phones. They are willing to spend billions of dollars to do it. Why? To observe our behaviors, which in turn will help provide us more of what we want…and they will also assist in those purchases. Of course this is what Microsoft and Apple and others want as well, but right now Google has the best cloud based voice experience, and if you ask me it’s the best user experience that will win the game. Seems like they should try and move ahead on the client, but lucky for Sensory we are staying ahead!
  • Rumors about Samsung acquiring Nuance…Why would they spend $7B for Nuance when they can pick up a more unique solution from Sensory for only $1B? Yeah, that’s a joke, and is definitely not intended as an offer or solicitation to sell Sensory!
  • OH! Sensory has a new logo! We made it to celebrate our 20 year anniversary!

Touch-less Control Wins!   June 9th, 2014

I still subscribe to the San Jose Mercury News, as they do a good job of tech business reporting. One of my favorite Mercury News writers is a true critic in the literary sense of the term, Troy Wolverton. Troy rarely raves and is typically critical, but in a smart, logical, and unemotional way.

A few days back he started writing about Microsoft’s  Cortana and said “Watch out Siri, someone wants your job.”

I was eager to read his review of Cortana this morning and in particular his comparison with Siri. He ended up giving it a 7/10, and concluding Siri was still ahead. What I thought was most interesting though was that in his final summary, he compared three products and three assistants based on the ease of calling up each of those assistants:

  • Cortana – required two touch steps to activate the personal voice assistant
  • Siri – required one touch step to activate the personal voice assistant
  • MotoX – The best, because you can just start talking with the keyword phrase “OK Google Now” making a TrulyHandsfree experience!!

Motorola is Sensory’s customer, and I am happy to read that Troy gets it and considers this front end activation an important metric in comparing personal assistants!

It was about 4 years ago that Sensory partnered with Vlingo to create a voice assistant with a special “in car” mode that would allow the user to just say “Hey Vlingo” then ask any question. This was one of the first “TrulyHandsfree” voice experiences on a mobile phone, and it was this feature that was often cited for giving Vlingo the lead in the mobile assistant wars (and helped lead to their acquisition by Nuance).

About 2 years ago Sensory introduced a few new concepts including “trigger to search” and our “deeply embedded” ultra-low power always listening (now down to under 2mW, including audio subsystem!). Motorola took advantage of these excellent approaches from Sensory and created what I most biasedly think is the best voice experience on a mobile phone. Samsung too has taken the Sensory technology and used in a number of very innovative ways going beyond mere triggers and using the same noise robust technology for what I call “sometimes always listening”. For example when the camera is open it is always listening for “shoot” “photo” “cheese” and a few other words.

So I’m curious about what Google, Microsoft, and Apple will do to push the boundaries of voice control further. Clearly all 3 like this “sometimes always on” approach, as they don’t appear to be offering the low power options that Motorola has enabled. At Apple’s WWDC there wasn’t much talk about Siri, but what they did say seemed quite similar to what Sensory and Vlingo did together 4 years ago…enable an in car mode that can be triggered by “Hey Siri” when the phone is plugged in and charging.

I don’t think that will be all…I’m looking forward to seeing what’s really in store for Siri. They have hired a lot of smart people, and I know something good is coming that will make me go back to the iPhone, but for now it’s Moto and Samsung for me!

Nick Bilton, in a New York Times article, cites Forrester Research analysts who point out the importance of software in differentiating and creating value in the wearables market while avoiding commoditization.

While the new hardware is fun and exciting for consumers, the ultimate value will come from creating a connection and engaging the consumers with effective and useful analysis of all the data collected. And in the small wearable form factor, the user interface is always going to be critical. With little or no room for buttons and displays, and not always having a smartphone handy to run an app, voice will increasingly become the user interface of choice for these devices.

Sensory is very well positioned to support voice user interfaces for wearables with ultra-low power implementations that can be woken by a gesture, and quickly respond to commands or shut down to minimize impact on battery life. Watch this space (pun intended) for product announcements of wearables with great voice user interfaces!

If you read through the biometrics literature you will see a general security based ranking of biometric techniques starting with retinal scans as the most secure, followed by iris, hand geometry and fingerprint, voice, face recognition, and then a variety of behavioral characteristics.

The problem is that these studies have more to do with “in theory” than “in practice” on a mobile phone, but they never-the-less mislead many companies into thinking that a single biometric can provide the results required. This is really not the case in practice. Most companies will require that False Accepts (error caused by wrong person or thing getting in) and False Rejects (error caused by the right person not getting in) be so low that the rate where these two are equal (equal error rate or EER) would be well under 1% across all conditions. Here’s why the studies don’t reflect the real world of a mobile phone user:

  1. Cost is key. Mobile phone manufacturers will not be willing to invest in the highest end approaches for capturing and measuring biometrics that are used by academic studies. This means less MIPS less memory, and poorer quality readers.
  2. Size matters. Mobile phone manufacturers have extremely limited real estate, so larger systems cannot be properly deployed, and further complicating things is that an extremely fast enrollment and usage is required without a form factor change.
  3. Conditions are uncontrollable. Noisy environments, lighting, dirty hands, oily screens/cameras/readers are all uncontrollable and will affect performance
  4. User compliance cannot be assumed. The careful placement of an eye, finger or face does not always happen.

A great case in point is the fingerprint readers now deployed by Apple and Samsung. These are extremely expensive devices, and the literature would make one think that they are highly accurate, but Apple doesn’t have the confidence to allow them to be used in the iTunes store for ID, and San Jose Mercury News columnist Troy Wolverton says:

“I’ve not been terribly happy with the fingerprint reader on my iPhone, but it puts the one on the S5 to shame. Samsung’s fingerprint sensor failed repeatedly. At best, I would get it to recognize my print on the second try. But quite often, it would fail so many times in a row that I’d be prompted to enter my password instead. I ended up turning it off because it was so unreliable (full article).”

There is a solution to this problem…It’s to utilize sensors already on the phone to minimize cost, and deploy a biometric chain combining face verification, voice verification, or other techniques that can be easily implemented in a user friendly manner that allows the combined usage to create a very low equal error rate, that become “immune” to conditions and compliance issues by having a series of biometric and other secure backup systems.

Sensory has an approach we call SMART, Sensory Methodology for Adaptive Recognition Thresholding that takes a look at environmental and usage conditions and intelligently deploys thresholds across a multitude of biometric technologies to yield a highly accurate solution that is easy to use and fast in responding yet robust to environmental and usage models AND uses existing hardware to keep costs low.

It’s not often that I rave about articles I read, but Ian Mansfield of Cellular News hit the nail on the head with this article.

Not only is it a well written and concise article but its chock full of recent data (primarily from JD Power research), and most importantly it’s data that tells a very interesting story that nicely aligns with Sensory’s strategy in mobile. So, thanks Ian, for getting me off my butt to start blogging again!

A few key points from the article:

  1. Price is becoming increasingly important in the choice of mobile phones, and simultaneously the prices of mobile phones are increasing.
  2. Although price might be the most important factor in choice, the overall customer satisfaction is driven by features.
  3. The features customers want are seamless voice control (36%); built-in sensors that can gauge temperature, lighting, noise and moods to customize settings to the environment (35%); and facial recognition and biometric security (28%).
  4. As everyone knows, Samsung and Apple have the overwhelming market share in mobile phones, but interesting to me was that they also both lead in customer satisfaction.

Now, let me dive one step deeper into the problem, and explore whether customer satisfaction can be achieved with minimal impact on cost:

Seamless voice control is here and soon every phone will have it, and it doesn’t add any hardware cost. Sensory introduced the technology with our TrulyHandsfree technology that allows users to just start talking, and our “trigger to search” technology has been nicely deployed by companies like Motorola that pioneered this “seamless voice control” in many of their recent releases. The seamless voice control really doesn’t add much cost, and with excellent engines from Google and Apple and Microsoft sitting in the clouds, it can and will be nicely implemented without effecting handset pricing.

Sensors are a different story. By their nature they will be embedded into the phones and will increase cost. Some “sensors” in the broadest sense of the term are no brainers and necessities, for example microphones and cameras are a must have, and the six-axis sensors combining GPS and accelerometers are arguably must haves as well. Magnetometers, barometers are getting increasingly common, and to differentiate further leading manufacturers are embedding things like heartbeat monitors; stereo 3D cameras are just around the corner. To address the desire for biometric security Samsung and Apple have the 2 bestselling phones in the world embedded with fingerprint sensors!

The problem is that all these sensors add cost, and in particular those finger print sensors are the most expensive and can add $5-$15 to the cost of goods. It’s kind of ironic that after spending all that money on biometric security, Apple doesn’t even allow them as a security measure for purchasing iTunes. And both Samsung and Apple have been chastised for fingerprint sensors that can be cracked with gummy bears or glue!

A much more accurate and cost effective solution can be achieved for biometrics by using the EXISTING sensors on the phones and not adding special purpose biometric sensors. In particular, the “must have sensors” like microphones, cameras, and 6-axis sensors can create a more secure environment that is just as seamless but much less difficult to crack. I’ll talk more about that in my next blog.