Say the magic words to wake the next generation of voice-controlled devices

A new generation of audio and motion-sensing technology based on the human ear is always listening out for your voice.

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In a world of smart watches, fitness trackers and other devices that don't lend themselves to keyboards or touch screens, a new generation of audio and motion technology based on the human ear could see you telling your phone what to do by waving it in the air, tapping on the table, or saying the magic words.

Having designed chips that mimic the human ear, audio technology company Audience is branching into motion-sensing technology. Just as your ears are important to the way you perceive balance and movement, so Audience's motion technology opens the way to new and novel ways of interacting with your phone.

Audience's new MQ100 motion processor takes cues from your phone's magnetometer, accelerometer and gyroscope to recognise movement. Fun uses of that include waking your device by picking it up, or waving it around in a particular way -- tracing your initials in the air, say.

The chip also knows what the phone is doing and can react accordingly, whether it's lying on a table or sitting in your pocket. It can also tell whether you're standing still or moving around, which would be useful for health trackers. The technology can even monitor your sleep.

Audience is a chip company that specialises in audio processing, cutting out ambient noise such as background chatter or wind to make sure your voice rings out loud and clear on a call. The company's chips are found in more than 220 mobile devices from the likes of Sony, LG and Huawei, including Google Nexus tablets and every Samsung Galaxy phone since the S2. Will it be in the new Samsung Galaxy S5 too? We'll find out when the S5 is unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Listen up

One of the problems with today's speech recognition systems is that they aren't truly hands-free: you have to press a button or pick up your iPhone to get Siri's attention, for example. The Motorola Moto X is one of the first devices to have always-on speech recognition, but you have to say "OK Google" to do anything. Meanwhile Audience has developed a system that allows you to specify your own keywords to wake the phone.

In order to be always listening but without chewing through the battery, your phone would go through three stages: one of the phone's three or so mics is on at all times, listening for your voice but using only a small amount of power. When the phone detects that you're speaking, it wakes further and listens for keywords. And once it hears the magic words it switches on all the mics ready for your request.

Word up

You can specify up to five keywords to wake your phone, and you can assign them to a different task -- like going straight to the camera or your email.

Or you can have different people set their own keywords and wake the phone into different user accounts -- handy for a tablet or laptop shared among a family or co-workers.

Other possibilities include the option of waking the phone by tapping on the table next to it, so you don't even have to touch it.

There's no word just yet on when we'll see these fun features actually in phones. Audience's new generation of chips will bring improved speech recognition and noise reduction to new phones this spring, although fingers crossed the possibilities outlined here will show up before the end of the year.

For more on the coolest mobile phones and tablets you need to know about, check out our in-depth coverage of Mobile World Congress 2014 for news, previews and hand-on first impressions of all the cutting-edge gadgets you can look forward to this year.

 

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