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StartTalking lets you text with just your voice

A new app is trying to address the dangers of texting while driving, by offering a tool that transcribes what you say into outgoing messages, and reads out whatever comes your way.

StartTalking logo

Texting while driving is a serious safety problem, so much so that the activity is now banned in 30 states in the United States.

How dangerous is it? The U.S. Department of Transportation says that drivers who do anything with a handheld device increase the risk of getting in an injury crash by four times--a concept that can be easy to ignore if you've gotten away with this unscathed.

AdelaVoice is based in East Falmouth, Mass.--a state where, beginning tomorrow, texting while driving will become an offense with a penalty of up to a $500. The company has come up with what its says is a solution for the problem, called StartTalking. Instead of paying attention to your phone, AdelaVoice says, you'll just be able to talk to it, and have it send what you say as a text. Likewise, when someone sends you a message, it will read it back.

Does it work? Most of the time, yes. And maybe best of all, it's free of charge.

Once installed on your Android phone (the company plans to offer it on other platforms, like the iPhone and BlackBerry, soon), it runs quietly in the background and listens for voice prompts to begin an action. The two prompts that are coming in this first iteration of the product are "computer" and "operator," though in future versions you'll be able to program in whatever word you want.

After you've picked the prompt, it's as simple as saying "operator: text message for (insert name of your friend here)." It confirms you want to send a message to that person, and then you just begin speaking. When you're done talking, it runs that speech through conversion, and plays it back for you. You then have the option to rerecord it, add to it, send it, or get rid of the message entirely.

StartTalking is available on Android today, and will be available on the iPhone and the BlackBerry later. Adelavoice

When new messages arrive, the app alerts you and offers to read them back to you. Other commands also let you listen to other messages in your in-box, clear a conversation log, read the time out loud, and even send out status updates to both Facebook and Twitter. The whole time this is going on, the phone can have its screen off, and be well away from your line of sight.

Besides texts, the service lets users send and receive audio messages. These can be anywhere from just a few seconds long to 10 minutes long. Just like text messages, you can begin a voice recording with a voice prompt, and the person who gets that message does not have to have StartTalking installed to listen. Instead, that audio file is hosted and will play back in the recipient's mobile Web browser.

To get its database of names from your phone, it can either slurp in your contact list, or you can select the names, and Google contact groups, you want it to learn. We tested it with about a dozen names, and the whole process took just a couple of minutes. At any point you can also go in to add or remove people.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more people you add, the more chances there are for the app to make mistakes with your prompts. This happened several times, not only with names, but also with actions. For instance, saying "send message" at the end of an SMS to a contact ended up canceling that action, and caused me to have to record the entire thing all over again. That's the sort of thing where if it happens more than once while you're driving, you're likely to get frustrated.

According to AdelaVoice CEO Christopher Hassett, with whom CNET spoke earlier this month, the app sucks up just 4 percent of your phone's battery for each hour it's operating. "We tested that with the phone running for three hours on a Droid X," he said. "It uses less power to send a text with StartTalking than to do it with your thumbs because the screen does not need to be on." That's including the power to compress, send, and download the voice transcriptions from Google--a transcription partner AdelaVoice is using on the back-end.

Hassett explained that the idea for the product came from looking at existing voice-recognition tools and finding that they did not offer a way to go from opening up your text message application to sending a message--all without having to look at the screen. "This is very much to address the fact that technology is killing us out there. We need to think about what we need to do and think to interact with these devices," he said. "We go end to end."

The filtering technology that enables the phone to listen was an in-house invention, something Hassett says is patent-pending. The technology listens to ambient noises and picks out the keywords it recognizes--the prompts--then delves into the next group of commands. For now, those commands are the text messaging tools, but Hassett imagines that in the future StartTalking will branch out into placing and controlling voice calls, as well as interacting with Google's GPS navigation software.

These things, of course, are likely to cost extra, but Hassett insisted that the core service--the one that lets users text without looking, will remain free. Future features would then be introduced as premium add-ons, which Hassett said would cost less than $10. "We look at the application stores on the iPhone and on the Android store, and we don't see a real market for $99 products," he said. "There's a mindset around pricing for mobile apps. I would love to buck it, but I can't."

Beyond personal communications and GPS, Hasset envisions taking the product into the realm of entertainment--particularly terrestrial radio, where he points to existing texting and calling laws getting in the way of listeners being able to interact with live programming, and thus keeping stations from getting in on the lucrative business of SMS revenues. "People can be somewhat entertained in their car if they're in a traffic jam and they want to respond to a poll on a radio station, or a particular program. That interaction can now be facilitated by StartTalking," he said.

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The challenge of realizing such a vision, Hasset explained, is doing it in a way that won't offend users with notifications they don't need, as well as getting the stations on board. "But that's where we see a scalable business--and that's just in the sphere of StartTalking. As we take the product outside of that, and into tablets, and things like set-top boxes, we think there are different revenue models." Those, Hasset said, would not be as cheap. "Once you're into those devices, you're outside of those chains that the mobile app environment has created of not being able to sell something for more than 10 bucks. You'll see us in the beginning part of next year, and into the first half, begin to introduce products that address this type of business model."

StartTalking can be found in the Android market starting today, and early next year on the iPhone.