Speech Lessons

Related: TVs Start Listening To Their Masters’ Voices

Some interesting things happen when people talk to their remote controls. They say things like “Sharknado.”

“TV content search is a pretty challenging task,” says Scott Taylor, senior VP for mobile devices at Nuance, a speech recognition company whose clients include Samsung, Roku and Comcast. Not only do you have to recognize all of the English words and phrases, but names of actors and directors, who could be from other countries. And then there are words that aren’t in any language but are the names of shows and movies.

“Sharknado. It’s a word that doesn’t exist. It came out of nowhere. It gets really popular for a few weeks and then nobody probably says it after a month or two. That’s kind of a challenge for us,”

Taylor says. Nuance and its clients update their data bases frequently so that consumers get to the content they want, no matter what it’s called. Taylor says embedding a microphone in the remote button has made voice activation much more accurate, and having the voice command appear on the screen during search boosts consumer confidence. The accuracy rate started lower on TV than in Nuance’s other businesses—healthcare, cars and smartphones—but is now in the 90% range and improving 10% a year.

At Comcast, it was tricky at first when viewers wanted to watch the Starz show Power, because the remotes were trained to tell consumers that they couldn’t turn their sets on or off using voice commands. Now viewers get the show when they ask for it by name. “It’s a weekly effort for us,” says Jeanine Heck, senior director of product management at Comcast. “We have to be pretty agile in the way we handle words because the semantic meaning behind them changes over time.”

Knowing how many subscribers feel about their cable company, B&C tried an experiment and said, “Comcast sucks” into the remote. It promptly changed the channel to Comcast SportsNet.

“We hope to eventually handle every voice command in a really smart way,” says Heck. “We’re adding more help capabilities so that when you ask for help we can take you to some of our tips and tricks about the guide. We have a few of those features already enabled but we’re definitely looking at how to help people when they’re running into troubles.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.