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CES 2012: Vlingo turns smartphone into voice-activated TV remote

Feeling overwhelmed by the array of remote controls in your living room? At CES 2012, Vlingo says it has an answer: a smartphone application that cannot only perform many of the functions of a remote, but also help you search for the programs you want to watch. And you control it with your voice, not your thumb.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Vlingo develops voice-controlled personal assistant technology for iPhones, Android phones and BlackBerries -- think Siri, but without the witty repartee. (Nuance, the voice-recognition company that provides some of the technology behind Siri, recently announced a deal to buy Vlingo.) At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, the company announced that it had adapted its technology to work with pay-TV services and "smart" Internet-connected TV sets.

The technology hasn't been deployed yet, but Vlingo Chief Executive Dave Grannan said the company was working with a number of cable operators and set manufacturers. The app should be on the market by late this year, Grannan said.

Several set makers have revealed plans this week to add voice recognition to their remote controls in a bid to simplify them, along with gesture recognition. That makes sense -- TVs have so many channels, inputs and services available today that simply turning everything on and off can be confounding, let alone finding the program you're looking for.

But enabling a remote to understand someone's voice isn't enough. The remote and the TV (or set-top box) need to be smart enough to understand how to translate "Launch Netflix" or "Tune to HBO" into the series of commands that brings the right content or channel to the screen.

That's where Vlingo comes in. Its smartphone app works in tandem with a Vlingo app inside a pay-TV set-top box or smart TV to translate what a user says into the equivalent of a series of button presses on the right remote. That's just for starters, however. The app also can tune in to or record shows just by name, with no reference to the channel or network they're on. And it can search through program descriptions to find shows by actor, genre or director.

Grannan said users will also be able to broaden the app's searches and functions by authorizing it to look for programs in the Netflix queue or other online services. That way, he said, the app could control multiple devices connected to the TV -- for example, a cable receiver and a Roku box.

The price of the app will be up to the service providers and set manufacturers that deploy it, Grannan said, but he doesn't expect them to charge for it. Vlingo's business model is similar to a search engine's: It offers businesses the chance to buy sponsored links that push their offerings to the top of search results. It's easy to imagine how users searching for TV shows might be annoyed by that kind of promotion. But Grannan said the company always marks the sponsored items, so at least users will be able to tell the ads from the rest of the search results.

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-- Jon Healey in Las Vegas

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.

Video: Vlingo

 
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