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Google Voice Search offers natural user input

hands on The new feature from Google, which lets desktop users search by voice the way that mobile users already can, is a step closer to true natural user interface.

Google Voice Search for desktop computers, which the Web giant launched today, isn't much more than the company porting a technology that's been on mobile phones for a while to PCs.

But don't write it off as a trivial bit of technology too quickly. Voice Search on the desktop moves computing one step closer to the natural user interface that's been the holy grail of computing for decades.

The feature isn't much different from the service that Google offers to smartphone users with its mobile app. Instead of tapping a microphone icon on a phone's screen, users click on a microphone icon in the search box at while they are using Google's Chrome browser. Of course, the user's computer has to have a built-in microphone, or the user needs a headset, in order for the service to work.

Google Voice Search for the desktop Google

Google is rolling out the feature this week, so it will be available for some users sooner then others. And, for now, it's only available in U.S. English.

So let's start by saying Voice Search for the desktop isn't really an office-friendly feature. And it's not just the intrusion into colleagues' work (though I did beg forgiveness from my cubicle neighbor before I started spouting off queries). Nearby conversations can inadvertently find their way into search requests. Those challenges also arise in coffee shops and other public spaces. Clearly, this is a feature that works best at home.

I started with the sort of query I suspect many users will attempt--one that tries to trip up the service with some sort of complexity.

"Zbigniew Brzezinski," I said.

Google Voice Search heard "big new brzezinski," which wouldn't seem to bode well for the service. But then the first link offered up was the Wikipedia page for President Jimmy Carter's National Security adviser. Not bad.

Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

So I moved to a different name from a different part of the world. "Kazuo Hirai," I said.

Google Voice Search had a harder time with that one. "Cas override" was the best it came up with. When I shortened it to "Kaz Hirai," Google offered results for the president and group chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment. The results included Hirai's Wikipedia page as well as photos of the executive.

Enough of the trickery, though. One of the purported benefits of Google Voice Search is the ability to speak long searches as opposed to typing them. So I said, "Photos of Barack Obama in the Oval Office." Presto! A wide selection of pictures from Google images popped onto my screen of the President in his office, talking on the phone, signing documents and meeting with visitors.

Another cool feature was the ability to speak math equations. Just saying "three point seven times nine point two" triggered the result, "3.7 * 9.2 = 34.04."

I also wanted to see how the service would work with other Google sites. So I said, "YouTube doing the Dougie." Though the query read the last word as "dougy," it came up with several YouTube videos, including the top result for tips to teach folks how to do the Dougie dance.

At the briefing, Google executives highlighted the ability to search for recipes as another benefit of the new feature. It's easy to imagine working in the kitchen, wanting to find directions for cooking a special dish, and doing that search mostly hands-free. (You do need a finger to click the microphone icon.) During the demo, a Google executive asked for a recipe of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce. And, as you'd expect, the service delivered the result flawlessly.

I tried a different suggestion, one of my favorite dishes. "Squid ink paella recipe," I said.

Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

The results that came back were for "squid ink pie recipe," not a dish I'm particularly keen to try. The first result was a recipe from the Los Angeles Weekly for "Vintage Strawberry Pie." Tasty, I'm sure. But again, not what I wanted.

Google executives also talked up the ability to get translations with Voice Search. In a demo, an executive said, "Translate to Spanish 'Where can I buy a hamburger in this neighborhood.'" The top result was a direct translation.

So I tried a different one: "Translate to Swedish 'Where is a good restaurant.'" Google didn't translate it for me. Instead, the Voice Search results offered up links for English to Swedish translation services. And even when I tried the same query, asking for the result in Spanish, I got links to translation sites, but not the translation itself.

Screenshot by Jay Greene/CNET

So we're clearly not yet at the point where speech can replace typing for every search on the Web, let alone handling many other tasks. But Google has pushed natural user interface a step forward. Still, though, there's a long journey ahead.