Better Voice Assistants Could Make Surfing the Web Easier

Opening the internet to everyone

Key Takeaways

  • Scientists at Stanford University are working on technology to allow better access to the internet using only your voice. 
  • Researchers propose a new voice-powered version of the World Wide Web. 
  • Accessibility is one significant advantage for an internet controlled by voice.
Woman using a smart phone.

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Searching the internet using your voice might soon get a lot easier. 

Stanford University researchers are developing technology for adding voice to the web that any virtual assistant can access. The scientists propose the creation of the World Wide Voice Web (WWvW), a new version of the web that people will be able to navigate entirely by voice.

"Most personal computing tasks have up until now been based around a visual interface and typing input via keyboard or touchscreen," Robin Spinks, the inclusive design and services manager of RNIB, a charity for people with sight loss, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Imagine the freedom of being able to carry out Internet-based tasks simply using your voice,  reserving a table at a restaurant, booking a flight or purchasing grocery items, the possibilities are endless."

Speak to Surf

About 90 million Americans already use smart speakers. But Amazon's Alexa and Google's voice assistant dominate the market. 

The Stanford team has developed an open-source virtual assistant called Genie and inexpensive voice agent development tools to offer an alternative to the proprietary platforms. The tech is meant to be inexpensive and not rely on voice assistants from Google, Apple, and Amazon voice assistants. 

The researchers also have a new vision of the internet controlled by voice. Under the plan, organizations would publish information about their voice agents on their websites, which are accessible by any virtual assistant. The voice agents act as web pages, providing information about their services and applications, and the virtual assistant is the browser. 

"WWvW has the potential to reach even more people than WWW, including those who are not technically savvy, those who don't read and write well or may not even speak a written language," Stanford computer science professor Chris Piech said in the news release. 

No Vision Required

Accessibility is one big advantage for an internet controlled by voice. Sprinks, who is blind, currently uses the internet via voice but isn't satisfied with his options.  

"Searching for and opening a webpage is relatively easy but navigating to a specific product or category or checkout isn't yet as simple as it could be," he added. "Imagine being able to select an item, place it in your basket and then complete your transaction, all by using your voice."

Having a voice-enabled internet can also increase accessibility levels for users who may have visual impairments, speak a second language or have learning disabilities, Matt Muldoon, the President North America, of the voice technology company ReadSpeaker, said via email. 

"By giving users an option to listen to content or speak to their computers or phones, companies can ensure that every individual receives an equal user experience," he added. 

A child and grandparent using a smart speaker voice assistant.
Getty Images

Some publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, already have voice-enabled articles where users can listen to the text of the article. Of course, it's already possible to use your voice to order products, add items to a shopping list or make payments. 

"Thanks to advancements in voice technology, it can now understand colloquial terms and better comprehend accents for users who may speak a second language, decreasing frustration levels and making the technology more popular and convenient to use," Muldoon said. 

Voice XML is another innovation that could enable a voice-controlled Internet, pointed out  David Ciccarelli, the CEO of  the audio production company Voices. VoiceXML is a digital document standard for specifying interactive media and voice dialogs between humans and computers. It is used for developing audio and voice response applications, such as banking systems and automated customer service portals.

The future of a voice-controlled internet will be the combination of voice and the Internet of Things, Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, said via email.  

"While smart home devices can do basic searches and even order items on Amazon with an Alexa device, with a voice-controlled internet, we will be able to tell our kitchen to make the coffee, the shower to get the hot water turned on, and our car to start defrosting the windows," he added. 

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