Review: Simulscribe - Read Your Voice Mail

Simulscribe, one of a couple of speech-to-text transcription services designed primarily to let mobile phone users receive their voice mails as text in e-mails, could be a godsend for some. Others will scratch their heads and wonder why they would ever want to pay this much for the dubious benefit of being able to read rather than listen to voice mail.

Here's how it works. You set your mobile service to forward no-answer, busy and unavailable calls to a Simulscribe number. Simulscribe takes voice messages for you, transcribes them using speech-to-text transcription software and sends the text, embedded in an e-mail, to the address you specify in your account settings. You can also have them sent to you as SMS messages.

Accuracy of transcription varies, but in my testing, which I'll describe in a minute, it was fairly impressive. It's not perfect, but it looks to be good enough in most cases that you won't need to actually listen to the message - although the audio is optionally also included in the e-mail as an attachment, and you can call in and collect Simulscribe voice messages the old-fashioned way too.

For mobile users who have push e-mail service, this could be a real boon just because they will now no longer have to make a call to their voice mail service to ensure they see all incoming messages. Voice messages will be pushed out to them automatically along with the rest of their mail.

The reading versus listening part could also be useful. Scanning the text of a Simulscribe message to get its gist is undoubtedly faster than listening to the audio recording from beginning to end - especially if you're already an e-mail-centric person.

And for those who collect and read e-mail in meetings and other situations where it would be impolite or impractical to dial up and listen with a phone glued to your ear, it means, again, that you can get all your messages, including voice mails.

So how much is this worth? If you sign up now during Simulscribe's "fall special," you'll pay $30 a month for an all-you-can-eat plan that gives you unlimited messages. The Simul40 plan gives you up to 40 messages a month for $10. Or you can pay as you go - 35 cents per message.

The service works, theoretically, with any phone service that offers call forwarding and lets subscribers set no-answer, busy and unavailable call forward numbers. You must, of course, have call forwarding activated on your account. In some cases, it may mean paying extra. For example, Telus in Canada, where I live, charges $2 a month to add call forwarding to an account if it wasn't included in the original plan.

Simulscribe provides dedicated call-forward numbers for all U.S. area codes. Toll free numbers are also available, though not at the company's Web site - you have to call in to customer service. Simulscribe is launching in Canada with Canadian area codes in two to three weeks. It will add other countries by the first of next year.

The current call forward number on your phone may be the number for your service provider's voice mail service. Or you might have set it up to forward calls to your office or home number. When you sign up for the service, Simulscribe sends you instructions on how to change these settings.

In many cases, it's simply a question of keying in a code to call your provider, such as *004*1xxxxxxxxxx*11# - where the x's represent the ten-digit Simulscribe forward-to number. You key in the code, hit Send, and the phone sends the request to your provider to change the call-forward settings.

PDAs and smartphones may have setup screens that let you key these numbers into fields. Then you just click OK to send the changes over the data connection.

After you set up Simulscribe, whenever you don't answer your mobile within in a specified time or your line is busy or you're unavailable because your phone is turned off or out of range, your calls will go to Simulscribe. As with any voice mail service, you can record a personal greeting. Simulscribe provides a dedicated toll-free number you can call to record greetings, set options and also collect voice messages in the traditional way.

Most Simulscribe account options can be set as well using the company's Web interface - you can log in to your account from anywhere using your userid and password. You could even use this interface to upload a greeting that you record on your computer and save as a WAV or MP3 file.

From the caller's perspective, the experience is pretty much the same as with any voice mail service. The default Simulscribe greeting tells callers their messages will be transcribed, and asks them to speak slowly and clearly. You can add a pre-recorded tagline to this effect to your personal recorded greeting, or record your own version.

After callers leave a message, the transcription software Simulscribe uses, which it licenses from a major speech recognition company and then tweaks to work well for voice mail, automatically translates the message into text, embeds the text in an e-mail and sends it to the address you specified, or as an SMS.

My experience with Simulscribe was frustrating - though not, so far as I can tell, because of any flaw or fault in the service. But it may be a cautionary tale. Here's what happened.

I had two mobile accounts on which I thought I would try Simulscribe: one personal account on which, it turned out, call forwarding was not activated, and a test account from Rogers in Canada for a Palm Treo phone I'm reviewing. When I attempted to change the busy/no-answer/unavailable call forward numbers on the Palm using the procedure Simulscribe provided, the phone told me the call had failed.

When I searched out the Call Forwarding Settings screens on the Palm and attempted to change the numbers over the data connection, I received a "network error" message. I tried several times using both methods, but received the same errors each time.

When I asked Rogers about this, I couldn't get a straight answer. I was told the company does not "support" the Simulscribe service. When I pointed out that it didn't have to support it in any active way, but only had to enable call forwarding on the test account, the company's representatives were evasive.

At the time of writing, I had still not received a clear explanation of exactly what was going on. My assumption is that call forwarding is simply not activated on the test account, and that Rogers didn't want to activate it for reasons that became clear. In the last communication I received, the company's PR agency pointed out - "as an FYI" - that SpinVox, a Simulscribe competitor, had recently announced the upcoming launch of its service on the Rogers network. The penny dropped.

What's a poor reviewer to do? No problem. I would improvise. (PDAStreet doesn't pay me the big bucks for nothing.)

Simulscribe also advertises that it works with Skype, the free-or-cheap Internet phone service, which allows you set a PSTN call-forward number to which it will transfer your Skype calls, so long as you have SkypeOut credits. SkypeOut is the company's for-fee service that lets users call regular phones from their computers. I have SkypeOut credits, so I set up Simulscribe to work on Skype.

This was a good test for Simulscribe, as it turned out. Call quality with Skype is variable. At best, it delivers significantly better quality than most cell phone calls, but on the day I was testing, Skype connections were no better than a typical mobile connection, possibly worse, with wobbly-sounding audio. I used a USB phone attached to my computer to make calls to my Skype identity and leave messages with Simulscribe.

So how did Simulscribe fare?

The messages in which I spoke in my normal voice were translated almost perfectly. Telephone numbers were transcribed correctly and the text was intelligible with, for the most part, only minor errors. Question marks appeared beside some words - usually proper names - indicating that Simulscribe was spelling them out phonetically. Some proper names it spelled correctly, however, including Lewinsky. (But not Monica.)

The only significant error was Simulscribe's complete inability to transcribe my standard North American pronunciation of "Kalamazoo," the city in Michigan.

I then tried leaving a message in which I played part of a recording made on a fairly good Olympus digital voice recorder. I held the recorder's speaker to the phone's microphone and hit the Play button. I thought this might simulate a bad cellular connection. The person speaking in the recording was also not consciously speaking clearly or slowly.

The results were, as I expected, inferior, with more question marks and enough words completely misinterpreted - but with no question marks - that the message was virtually unintelligible.

The real reason for this poor performance turns out to be somewhat different. Simulscribe founder James Siminoff explained that the company's software is as accurate as it is because it's tuned to listen just for the kinds of words, phrases (and numbers) people are apt to say when they leave typical 18 to 30-second voice messages. My recording was of an interview, which the Simulscribe software could not be expected to transcribe accurately.

For my final set of tests, I wanted to see what would happen if a person with a foreign accent left a message. Not having any confederates with foreign-sounding voices, I did a bad imitation of British comic actor Peter Sellers imitating a South Asian person. (Apologies both to the Sellers estate and the South Asian community.) The things we reporters won't do to get our story!

Whether it's a reflection on the quality of the Simulscribe speech-to-text technology or the badness of my fake foreign accent, I don't know, but these messages were transcribed at least as well as the messages left in my normal voice - including guessing right at the spelling of the fake name I used, Amir. (Or perhaps it's that the Simulscribe technology hasn't been tuned yet to interpret a Canadian accent.)

Bottom line: If speech-to-text transcription of voice mail sounds like something that would be useful to you, and it does to me, you only have to ask yourself whether it's worth the price of admission. As noted, though, Simulscribe is not the only service provider. So shop around.

Perhaps Rogers will let me try SpinVox.

TAGS:

services, applications, voicemail

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