The Next Big Thing for Cell Phones: Lip-reading

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Cell phone analysts believe that the next "killer app" for cell phones is the ability to lip-read. Such a feature would combine the speed and ease of voice communication, with the silence and confidentiality of text messaging.

We’ve all been there before: you need to have a private cell phone conversation but you’re in a public area. You don’t want others to overhear your conversation, and besides, using a cell phone in public can be rude or even prohibited. Some say text messaging is the answer, since it’s silent and confidential. Others disagree: it’s too slow and too cumbersome, they say, and besides, who always has two hands available?

So what is the solution? Well, according to MatchB Partners, a small technology consulting firm in St. Paul, the solution is to have a cell phone that can lip-read silent speech. Wags have termed it the “Milli Vanilli Phone” (after the singer accused of lip-synching in the early ‘90s), but some analysts contend that it’s the next big thing in cell phones. “Most people talk at a speed about 10 times faster than they can text message,” says Michael Ford, spokesman for MatchB, which currently has a patent pending on the phone. “Voice communication is easy and fast. Text messaging is quiet and confidential. A lip-reading cell phone combines the advanges of both.”

A lip-reading cell phone operates by combining a built-in camera (not an uncommon feature these days) with software that deciphers mouth movements. The caller holds the camera in front of her mouth and speaks without making any noise. The camera phone intakes the lip movements, and the software program (which is built either into the cell phone proper or is located at a centralized facility) translates these lip movements into words. The person receiving the call may choose to either read the words as a text message, or to hear the words spoken by a synthesized computer voice.

Lip-reading software itself is not an altogether new phenomenon – in 2003 Intel released an open-source version of lip-reading software called AVSR (Audio Visual Speech Recognition) – but applying it to cell phones is a drastic departure from previous means of cellular communications. “The technology is far from simple, ” says Ford. “The first generation of lip-reading phones may very well require the cell phone speaker to whisper into the phone, quiet enough to not be overheard but loud enough for the cell phone to pick up a faint audio signal. That would allow the phone to benefit from a combination of lip-reading and speech recognition, greatly increasing reception accuracy.”

It may strike some as a bizarre image, the thought of groups of people walking down an airport terminal moving their lips without making any sound. Some cell phone makers, though, are taking the concept seriously enough to actively consider adding the feature to future models of their phones. “Allowing for lip-reading is an inevitable and a logical development,” according to Ford. “It is a clean solution to the problems of obtrusive cell phone noise and unwieldy text messagers, problems that have bedeviled the industry. Quiet cell phones are both personally advantageous and a public service.”

Now if only they could find a way to cut down on the speech sounds by some politicians. That would really be a public service.

Editorial Contact: Michael Ford



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