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Lernout adds Linux, voice software to handheld

Code-named Nuk, from Nukulu, the Hawaiian word for "echo, the prototype allows users to search the Web, compose emails and organize files, all through voice commands.

Lernout & Hauspie wants PDA users to talk to the hand.

The speech recognition software company is hoping to gain attention this week with a product prototype that combines some of the trendiest technology around--PDAs (personal digital assistants), speech recognition, wireless Internet access and the Linux operating system--into one package. Lernout & Hauspie is touting the new device at the Demo 2000 conference in Indian Wells, Calif., an annual show devoted to unveiling new technologies and Net companies.

Code-named Nuk, from Nukulu, the Hawaiian word for "echo," the device purportedly allows users to search the Web, compose emails and organize files, all through voice commands. The Nuk is expected to ship by the end of the year. The company is looking for potential manufacturing partners at the Demo 2000 conference, according to a company spokesperson.

"Most users employ handheld and mobile devices on the go, often requiring hands-free use," Gaston Bastiaens, president of Lernout & Hauspie, said in a statement. "Most also find that manual information input and output is awkward because of the small size of handheld and mobile devices."

Running on the Linux operating system and powered by a StrongARM processor, the company's prototype puts it in the middle of the rapidly emerging market of information appliances, scaled-down computing devices that stand out by being simple to use.

Expected to outpace shipments of consumer computers by 2002, according to an International Data Corp. research report, appliances and devices are being looked at with interest from everyone from PC manufacturers to household appliance makers.

"Right now, we're just getting started," said Kevin Hause, an analyst with IDC, speaking about the information appliance market. "It will be one of the fastest growing categories around."

One of the challenges, however, remains figuring out what customers will want in an Internet device . Some analysts and industry executives, for instance, believe cell phones with built-in organizers will become a hot commodity, a notion that others scoff at.

Lernout's trump card comes in speech recognition, one of those supposed "must have" technologies that few seem to buy. Some experts, including noted industry veteran Jeff Hawkins, co-founder of Palm Computing, have publicly disavowed speech recognition on small devices like PDAs.

In addition, speech recognition, which until recently required too much processing power and memory capacity to work well on desktop computers, may be too demanding an application for devices with much smaller hardware capabilities and issues with battery.

Voice recognition, however, is a natural method for input for handhelds, the company maintains. Using the Lernout & Hauspie continuous speech recognition engine, users can dictate and send emails using voice commands. In addition, the technology allows users to do simple Web searches, process e-commerce transactions, and conduct online stock trades, all using the wireless Internet connection and voice commands.

"We put this together for the conference, to show how these technologies can work together, and to show what can be done," said a spokesperson from the company. "It's interesting to see dictation on a handheld, because users aren't going to be wanting devices they can't interact with."