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Firms target speech recognition in cars, handhelds

National Semiconductor and Lernout & Hauspie say they'll team up to develop new uses and applications for speech recognition in a bid to make Net-access devices easier to use.

Two companies are bringing the world closer to the day when you hop in the Honda and bark commands at the car computer.

National Semiconductor and software maker Lernout & Hauspie said they will team up to develop new uses and applications for speech recognition technologies in a bid to make Internet access devices easier to use.

National Semiconductor, looking to beef up its strategy for the so-called information appliance market, said the joint agreement will speed development of speech recognition capabilities for products such as tablet computers, automobile PCs, and handhelds that can access the Internet.

Lernout & Hauspie, based in Brussels, Belgium, is a rising player in this field, receiving a $30 million investment from Intel earlier this year. Speech recognition is viewed by many as a "killer app" that will justify new generations of powerful computers.

Executives at the companies said the arrangement will help the adoption of these devices by making them easier to use and will let manufacturers ship more creative hardware designs.

By using voice commands instead of punching keys, "Speech technology not only helps reduce the size of a device but more importantly gives end-users the freedom, productivity, and convenience of communicating naturally with that tool," said Gaston Bastiaens, president and chief executive of Lernout & Hauspie in a statement.

National's CEO Brian Holla was even more optimistic, stating that "children born today might never use a keyboard in their lives."

National said it plans to integrate the speech recognition technology for use with its Geode family of processors. The Geode family of chips, introduced last month, integrates most of the electronic functions needed for a Net-access appliance, including the main processor, graphics, and audio.

The collaboration is aimed at strengthening the appeal of digital devices to a mass market that may not yet be convinced of the need for email in the car. For National, which exited the market for PC chips, the unproven market is its best hope to gain the upper hand against chipmaking giant Intel.

"Speech recognition and voice-enablement are critical accelerators for information appliances," said Steve Tobak, vice president of marketing at National. With voice, the keyboard can be eliminated, allowing the device to be smaller. Voice commands, once a user is trained, are also easier, some say.

Voice recognition in the past has been hampered by inadequate computing power, Tobak said. However, processors have been catching up so that users "don't need a supercomputer" anymore, he said.

National is also dedicating additional resources to the problem. The company is currently developing a co-processor that will specifically accelerate voice commands. The co-processor will be integrated into the Geode chip, Tobak said.

In May of this year, National said it was going to concentrate on information appliances by offering a computer-on-a-chip that is based on the Intel architecture. So far, the strategy amounts to moving from market in which the firm was losing money to one where few are selling anything.

Microsoft's WebTV, the highest-profile information appliance, has about 800,000 users so far, although interactive TV set-top boxes that allow for online shopping and email are becoming more prevalent in Europe. So-called Auto PCs, which use speech recognition technology to give directions and read email, haven't taken off yet--about 2,000 have been sold since their introduction, said one industry source.

But National is hoping the best is yet to come. Philips Electronics is expected to be among the first users of National's Geode chip. Philips is working on designs for a TV set-top for use by America Online for its AOL TV efforts.

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.