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Lastminute.com Signs Up Voice Recognition Partners

[London, ENGLAND] European e-commerce company lastminute.com has announced a series of partnership deals aimed at speeding up its introduction of interactive voice recognition.

The deals are with BT e-business and communications unit Syncordia Solutions, speech interface technology specialist Nuance, and the Centre for Communication Interface Research (CCIR) at the University of Edinburgh.

Syncordia will supply advanced technology for lastminute.com's speech recognition platform, working in conjunction with Nortel Networks. The new technology is intended to allow users to conduct voice-enabled e-commerce and make telephone calls without a keypad.

Nuance, which is emerging as an influential firm in the development of standards for its industry sector, will supply the project's core speech recognition engine.

Independent tests for the new technology will be developed by CCIR, an academic institution dedicated to the study and refinement of voice, Web, WAP and interactive digital television (iDTV) platforms.

Brent Hoberman, chief executive of lastminute.com, defended his company's venture into leading-edge technology by saying that the partners were "the best blue-chip suppliers" and they would produce a scalable and flexible voice recognition system.

"We believe that this development will further strengthen lastminute.com's position at the forefront of new technologies and enhance the convenience element of our customer proposition," said Hoberman.

With the myriad of accents, bad grammar, slurred speech and voice impediments out there in the real world, will voice-enabled Web site interaction ever really work? Will it even understand business jargon?

Lastminute.com appears confident that it will, and likewise its new technology partners prefer to talk about benefits rather than potential problems.

"Voice-enabling a Web site extends the reach of the Internet to that segment of the population -- at the moment up to 80 percent -- that currently don't have access," said Jeremy Stafford, general manager of the eCRM Solutions Division at Syncordia Solutions.

Nick Applegarth, managing director of Nuance Europe, was even more positive, saying that his company and lastminute.com are "inventing the future of retail sales."

"Customers will be able to speak their orders just like they were speaking to a shop assistant," said Applegarth, who added the (famous?) last words: "It will be easy and fun to use."