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Appiphilia: First look at vlingo iPhone voice-recognition app

On the heels of Google adding voice to its app, vlingo is announcing the release of its voice-recognitionVlingo app for iPhone app for the iPhone. The company already has a download for BlackBerry (North America), which CEO Dave Grannan says has had 110,000 downloads since the end of June.

Just as the BlackBerry and the iPhone are different beasts, the software is slightly different but essentially does the same thing -- puts commands at the tip of your tongue instead of the tip of your finger.

Essentially, he said, it's a "learning adaptive system." That means it creates a "personal language model" for you that's called up via the Internet every time you launch the app. So it's designed to learn your speech patterns. From its pool of 5 million utterances so far, the system is also sampling other users, "so it improves for the entire community," Grannan said.

At this time, only English variants are supported -- in other words, accents of those who speak English, whether New Zealander, Brit or Jamaican. In mid-February, vlingo expects to launch German and Spanish versions.

Grannan said while vlingo doesn't yet support Bluetooth, the company projects that that will come about the middle of next year.

The company thinks it will resonate with iPhone users. "We expect it to be pretty overwhelming," Grannan said.

After spending a few days with a review version of vlingo, here's the my take. ...

vlingo app for iPhone vlingo (free)

What it is: In basic terms, you speak, it does. With this free app, you can dial contacts, search the Web, access Google Maps and update your status on Facebook and Twitter.

What sizzles: When I spoke, it listened -- and heard. The accuracy when speaking directly into the mic was quite impressive. When it's good, it's very, very good.

Return and response times were notably quick much of the time. If it didn't understand you, it may take a little more time and then politely replies in text on the screen that it couldn't understand.

The fact that you can choose your search engine offers a nice bit of variety in results. In a nod to the obsessively connected, you can keep your "friends" and "followers" informed on Facebook and Twitter. When I spoke my updates in, they were more often than not accurate and quick, even the long ones.

And the design of the app is driver friendly. From the home tab, the button you tap to trigger the voice-recognition is fat (check it out in the screen grab above). So your thumb, however svelte or thick, can't miss it even if you aren't looking. The virtual button responds to being held down and released or tapped to start and tapped to finish when commands are spoken.

If you use the "home" tab, you need to give it a command -- call, search, find, Twitter update. But if you start from the other tabs, such as maps, you just need to say what you're trying to locate.

The best part: You really don't have to learn a new language to tell it what you want.

What fizzles: We in Los Angeles (and much of California) are living in a hands-free but cellphone-tethered society. So I hopped in my Prizm "classic" and gave it the ol' driving test -- searching the Web at 70 miles per hour (or so) on the 210. (In other words, I wasn't in a spanking new BMW 3-series with even the purr of the engine blocked out. I was in a car that does participate in a little bit of vehicle-freeway call and response.)Vlingo

While I was mostly impressed with the app for its ease of use, speed and versatility, not everything I tried was successful. On the drive, with car windows up, music off and wired headphones plugged in, the accuracy was less impressive. In fact, at times it was downright abysmal.

(Note: It could well have been my headphones or the review version of the software I had. The issues weren't limited to the car. In a quiet-ish room, vlingo had trouble understanding what was said into the headphone's mic. Grannan said vlingo has had no problems whatsoever with wired headphones.)

I said, "search for turkey stuffing" and got back "bathing suits." Repeated efforts led to other inaccuracies including "fasting vasectomy" (screen grab at left). I suppose it could be attributed to the app getting attuned to my thick Coachella Valley accent, but I'm just not sure.

Again, unplugged it did much better. Phone numbers sought were found with no effort once the headphones weren't apparently playing an annoying game of operator.

Tests this morning with the downloaded consumer version on iTunes worked great with the headphones with Lewis Black yelling on the TV in the background. I finally was able to find my "turkey stuffing."

Some of the attractive features available in the BlackBerry version are not available for the iPhone. Using vlingo, BlackBerry can text without typing, open calendar and other applications, and you can send a note to self.

Vlingo doesn't offer that functionality for iPhone -- since Apple restricts third-party access to its core apps. Although Grannan did say, "The hope is getting a relationship with Apple to do that."

Bottom line: Despite that search hiccup, vlingo's entry adds some attractive vocal variety in the still-small but growing chorus of voice-recognition iPhone apps. It certainly shows sophistication in its functionality and flexibility, but it does have room to improve.

-- Michelle Maltais

Here's a video vlingo provided demonstrating how the app works:

Have you downloaded vlingo to your iPhone? What do you think? Have your say in the comments.

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