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8/2/2007
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Apple iPhone Being Sized for Voice Interface

Apple's rationale for a voice-driven interface is easy to understand: Interfaces for portable devices demand attention and they're not always easy to read.

Those who have struggled with the iPhone's visual-tactile interface while driving and swerving across lanes may welcome Apple's ongoing effort to bring voice commands to its portable devices.

An Apple patent application published today by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office reveals that Apple continues to build upon past research -- Audio User Interface For Computing Devices" (2004) and "Voice Menu System" (2003) -- to develop a speech interface for general purpose computing.

"Audio User Interface For Computing Devices," an update of Apple's 2004 patent, describes "an audio user interface that generates audio prompts that help a user navigate through the features of a computing device. The audio prompts provide audio indicators that allow a user to focus his or her visual attention upon other tasks such as driving an automobile, exercising, or crossing a street."

While Apple and Microsoft both have speech interface technology in their operating systems, this particular patent focuses on speech navigation for MP3 players and mobile phones.

Apple's rationale for a voice-driven interface should be familiar to anyone who has tried to dodge cars on a busy street while changing playlists on an iPhone or iPod and balancing a scalding latte: Interfaces for portable devices demand attention and they're not always easy to read.

"One reason is that the display screens tend to be small in size and form factor and therefore difficult to see," the patent application explains. "Another reason is that a user may have poor reading vision or otherwise be visually impaired. Even if the display screens can be perceived, a user will have difficulty navigating the user interface in 'eyes-busy' situations when a user cannot shift visual focus away from an important activity and towards the user interface."

With Apple making deals to put iPods in cars and on athletes, the company clearly has a vested interest in seeing that its devices can be used in 'eyes-busy' situations.

"Distraction is a substantial safety problem," said John D. Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Iowa, in a March 2007 study on technology and teen drivers. "Between 13% and 50% of all crashes are attributed to driver distraction or inattention. By one estimate, cell phone distractions contribute to a yearly cost of 2,600 fatalities, 330,000 injuries, and a total societal cost of $43 billion. Although less is known about emerging infotainment technologies, many pose a threat to driving safety that is at least as great as cell phones."

If and when the iPhone gets a voice interface, it may lose its status as today's to-die-for device. But a few of its buyers may welcome outliving their two-year AT&T contract.

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