In late 2012, while visiting my son Tom in Dallas, I noticed that he was doing something very odd with his cell phone. Most people enter text into their cell phone by pressing their thumbs (or their fingertip) on the letters of a small keyboard, whether virtual or actual. But Tom was doing something altogether different: he was sliding his finger over the glass surface of his phone and somehow, by so doing, he was able to enter text. I was dumbfounded! What amazed me most of all was how casual he was about it. He'd be talking to me about something, then glance down at his cell phone, move his fingertip around on the glass, and — presto digito! — he'd have typed a message to someone and sent it off.
Now, Tom is in telecommunications and in general is a very handy guy who can fix almost anything, so I thought that what he was doing with his magic finger was not something that ordinary mortals could achieve. I simply filed that mind-boggling experience away in the back of my head somewhere (though I subsequently did draft a preliminary Language Log post about it that got lost somewhere).
But two things happened recently that made me resolve to actually record my thoughts on the phenomenon of Tom's relaxed symbiotic relationship with his phone. The first incident was in Prague this past summer when I observed a colleague from Taiwan entering Chinese text on her cell phone. Normally, that would not be a big deal, because nearly all Chinese speakers I know use Hanyu Pinyin (Romanization) to enter text (as I have described in many Language Log posts), and it looks pretty much like someone entering English. But my colleague from Taiwan, a professor in the Chinese literature department of National Taiwan University who is obviously highly literate and intensely devoted to the characters, presented a totally different appearance as she entered Chinese text into her phone with a shape-based system.
Unlike Tom's nonchalant swiping across the glass surface of his cell phone, the professor from Taiwan seemed to be attacking her poor cell phone. OMG! With a frenzied swishing, she raced her fingertip around in circles, bends, crosses, hooks, and all manner of other shapes. Her whole body even got into the action. I was breathless from watching her and almost had a heart attack for fear that she was going to collapse from the strenuous effort. She was clearly practiced at what she was doing, yet it looked as though she were engaged in a most difficult task.
Juxtaposing Tom's smooth motions with the Taiwan professor's frenetic movements in my mind's eye, they seem to serve as a parable of the two writing systems.
The second thing that prompted me to write this post is that this year, when I went back to Dallas to celebrate the advent of the New Year with Tom and his family, I saw him talking into his cell phone, not for the purpose of making a call, but to enter text. Once more, as I always am when I see people doing things that are totally beyond my ken, I was flabbergasted. Somehow, the software in Tom's phone converted what he was saying into typed form.
Naturally, the technical aspects of Tom's two easy-appearing methods (called Swype and Voice Recognition) for inputting text are way beyond me, but for those who are interested, I have copied — with minimal editing — a few paragraphs that Tom kindly drew up for me to explain how they work. For the most part, I have let Tom speak in his own voice, because it is that of a professional in the realm of telecommunications. Allowing him to have his own voice affords us a glimpse into the inner workings, and even a sense of the future, of an industry that we all rely on but seldom comprehend.
BEGINNING OF TOM'S DESCRIPTION AND EXPLANATION
Before we do anything else, we have to understand the basics of cloud computing = any time the user is drawing computer processing power from a non-local machine. In other words, cloud computing is invoked whenever you are using an online application and you are manipulating a remote computer.
Some people say even something as simple as checking your bank balance online is "cloud" computing, as you are obtaining information from a database on a remote computer. However, I [Tom] personally draw some distinction between using a basic online service such as that and "cloud" computing. To me, cloud computing means accessing very powerful computer processing ability remotely.
This is important background information for apprehending what I am about to say concerning Swype and Voice Recognition.
First of all, the creators of the programs should be revealed. Swype is the trademarked name of a program created by a company called Nuance. This is a great name for a company in the handheld device industry space, because there is a concerted market force to promote higher and higher interactibility with handhelds under the name of "gestures." So we can interact with our handhelds in more complex ways within this concept of "gestures". And we can look like mad genius Beethoven conductors if we really get our digits a-fluttering.
Swype came pre-loaded on my HTC Wildfire S mobile phone, and is probably widely available as a pre-loaded feature of any Android phone. I do not believe Apple iPhone has any comparable function.
[VHM: HTC is a Taiwanese company.]
Swype, as you already know, allows the user to move their digit over a series of letters on the touch screen of their mobile device and then predicts what word that string of letters should be. The entire movement should be called a "Swype," and the word can be used as a noun or a verb. "I'm swyping and my swype was 'food'." Once a swype is completed, the program will present a choice of words to the user, with the highest ranked word first and highlighted. The Swype program does have some additional intelligence built into the input method, which I know probably only the basics of, such as the ability to communicate double letters to the program by holding their finger over the letter longer (for example start with "f" slide finger over "o" and hold momentarily, then slide finger over "d" to produce word "food.") The entire programming of the Swype application is stored locally on the mobile phone, so, it should not be called a "cloud" application. To sum up, Swype is a great way to speed up entry of text messages, and it does endear the user to their little mobile device in a special way by eliminating the pecking feeling of entering individual letters on such tiny screens.
Link to Nuance corporation website.
Wikipedia article on Swype.
Next I'm going to write about Google Voice Recognition (aka Speech Recognition).
I believe the Google Speech recognition is a much more interesting phenomenon than Swype. This is because of the non-local computing aspect (it is most definitely a "cloud" computing program). I did a bit of internet sleuthing and found some articles about it; I will provide the relevant links to them at the end of my description.
Prelude: Mobile phones OS and makers discussion
When discussing mobile phones, it is critical to understand that Google created the Android operating system. This can be thought of simply as: Google is to Android is to your mobile phone as Microsoft is to Windows is to your PC. While Google does sell Google branded hardware, it was quite happy to partner with other companies to do the work of manufacturing the phones. (Samsung and HTC are prime examples of Android phone makers.)
There are dozens of makers of phones, but there are fewer makers of operating systems. As far as Operating Systems go, currently Google Android and Apple iOS dominate the market. The smaller players in this space are Microsoft (with Windows phone OS), Blackberry (with Blackberry phone) and I believe Nokia is still making a phone with its own operating system. Obviously, Microsoft does not want to be a "small" player, and it's put a lot of energy into integrating its PC operating system with its Windows phone operating system (Windows 8 and Windows phone look and function almost identically). Unfortunately for Microsoft, it's new operating systems don't seem to have attracted much excitement or enthusiasm. With its mammoth presence in the PC market, PC users don't have much choice. It might be good to recall that 2013 was the worst year in a long series of years of declines in PC sales. I think Microsoft will never go away because it is the de facto choice for many business decision makers who want to avoid looking too snazzy, and it is the de facto choice for many average folks who want something "standard".
Long digression, now back to Google Voice Recognition….
Voice Recognition is integrated into the Operating System on all Android phones. When I say integrated, I mean it is a button that is available to select on multiple applications. For example, you can select it from within Messaging, Email, notepad type programs, etc. It's built right into the keypad area and looks like a little microphone. When the user taps the microphone icon, the application launches and after a pause where it says "getting ready," it asks the user to "speak now." Once the spoken message is completed, the phone displays a "working" message. After that, the text of the spoken message will appear. Now, the text is not perfect but it is incredibly close to right, I would guesstimate 95%. You just need to read over what was dictated and make a couple edits and your message is good to go. Or you can just send it with that easily understood wrong word included. (Everybody does that… predictive text, Swype, and Voice Recognition have made for a lot of error-ful messages; but what the heck, we get our message across well enough. It's probably no worse than static or interference in a spoken communication.)
Here's the extra-magical part (all of this stuff is magical, but this is where it gets pretty unbelievable). When Google Voice says "getting ready" and when it says "working", it's communicating with a very very very powerful computing array called a "Neural Network." Your phone is sending the voice recording to these computers which are then converting them into alphabetic words. The neural network computers perform extremely sophisticated operations to decrypt your words, then re-send the alphabetic words back to your phone. Now THAT is really cloud computing! The transfer, the computing, the accuracy — all of it are marvelous.
So here is a link to a Wired magazine article about the neural network type computers, and prominently featuring Voice Recognition.
Final note from VHM: The wondrousness of Google Translate, which never ceases to astonish me, must rely on the same sort of Cloud Computing that Tom has described for Google Voice. Praise be to the Cloud!