Safety first - The Jablokov brothers' talk-to-text mission
Reported by Larry Phipps, a Greater IBMer
The other night, during a break in our meeting, a friend began venting about getting a text message from his college-aged son - who was driving to class at the time. "It scares me to death."
He's not alone. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Last year, police in a Phoenix suburb blamed a teen's text-messaging habit for a head-on crash that killed two people. California recently joined a number of other states that ban teen cell phone use in the car.
But laws can do only so much to protect young people. Sometimes it takes a new way of thinking. Greater IBMer Igor Jablokov is developing a way for teens (and adults) to send text messages using their voices, not their fingers.
And it's getting a lot of attention.
"We're delivering a way for anything you say on your cell phone to be turned into text for messaging or Web services," said, Jablokov, who co-founded a company called Yap in partnership with his brother. "We're convinced it's the right solution to a problem that's facing us all."
Jablokov, who left IBM two years ago to pursue their dream and now lives in Charlotte, NC, says he'll have a product in the marketplace this year.
Where did they get the idea?
"My brother Victor noticed our teenage sister texting like crazy and wondered if you could use speech recognition for that," he recalls. "When he challenged us to figure out how to do it, he didn't realize that free-form speech recognition is one of the most arduous tasks in computer science."
The list of potential problems is almost endless: different voices, spotty cell phone coverage, differences in handsets, background noise, sneezes ... well, you get the idea.
But they decided to go forward with a cocktail mix of founders' daring and naïveté, and despite "the feeling that we're now alone" since he no longer had the resources at IBM to call on.
Before leaving IBM to start Yap, he was program director for Multimodal Technologies in the Software Group's WebSphere division. Those many years at IBM, being a part of the Microelectronics Division, provided the opportunities "to finally discover and explore my inherent interest for speech technologies." What could be more rewarding than teaching a machine to understand you? "I've been mentored by some intensely talented people during my career," he said. "Creating something that will benefit our community is a way of rewarding their efforts."
While he felt pretty shipwrecked at times during the startup, without the support and structure he'd come to expect at IBM, Jablokov said there was an upside.
"I had infinitely fewer resources," he recalled. "Conversely, I had an expanded ability to make and influence decisions, whether they were good or bad. I liked that."
So what makes their solution stand out?
"Most modern speech recognition services use something called grammars - essentially comparing what you said to a list," Jablokov said. "Yap allows you to simply say anything, so a child could ask 'why is the sky blue?' and get an answer.
"We use technology to do the job that others have tried to do using humans on the back-end, which has implications for your privacy - and their scalability."
They also want to deliver a safe, secure - and easy - solution. The sons of artists, elegant design takes a high priority. It should be simple to use right after the download.
Yap's system allows users to simply speak into their mobile handset. Within seconds, the system delivers that spoken message as text. Received messages can also be heard aloud, as the system reads the incoming text.
It also supports a number of other uses, such as sending wall posts to friends on Facebook, updating your blog on Twitter, or even asking for a specialty store or restaurant on Google.
Still ahead lies the complexity of working with wireless carriers, Web portals and mobile device makers so users can have access to Yap messaging wherever they go. He also sees enormous opportunities with banks, travel and just about any traditional industry where IBM plays a major role. The enterprise platform will be available first, followed by the applications that users can one day download for little or no cost. How many? "Millions of users."
It's a big challenge, but Jablokov feels up to it. "It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I'm rather tenacious," he said with a smile. "We got this far by giving up on sleep, so I don't let biological realities hinder innovation. "We'll get there."
In the meantime, he's making full use of The Greater IBM Connection after "several of my former peers suggested it was a useful way to stay connected with the Mother Ship."
And how can Greater IBM do more?
"Make it mobile!"
Igor and Victor Jablokov share the talk to text vision.
If you want to learn more about Yap, you'll find the Website at http://www.yapme.com.