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Sun tackles privacy, speech recognition

Company researchers show off their latest work on "Virsona," software designed in part to shield people from unwanted messages while letting them maintain a network presence.

Computer-maker Sun Microsystems is working on technology it hopes will improve teamwork at companies, even as it lets employees shield information from bosses.

Dubbed "Virsona," the software is designed to let people preserve their privacy while maintaining a network "presence." Those trying to contact a person on the network by phone, e-mail or instant message will reach that person's Virsona--or virtual persona--which, among other things, serves as a kind of gatekeeper, deciding whether to give out information on the person's availability.

Virsona is built on a peer-to-peer software architecture, meaning users may decide to share details of their work schedule with colleagues while keeping it private from central systems administrators or supervisors. Employees "have more direct control of their own information," said James Begole, a researcher at Sun Microsystems Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif. "Bosses might be willing to make that trade-off."

The technology was one of several in the general category of enhancing interpersonal and group communications that Sun showcased Thursday. Other projects in the company's All Ways Connected research program include a set of tools for improving distributed meetings, software for integrating wireless personal digital assistants into corporate computing environments and a Java-based speech-recognition program.

The projects offered a glimpse into Sun's bets for remaining a computing powerhouse. The company was at the forefront of selling Unix-based server computers in the late 1990s amid the Internet boom. But under pressure from rivals IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the company's performance has dimmed. In the first three months of this year, Sun posted a slight profit, but its revenue fell 10.2 percent year-over-year to $2.8 billion.

With about 180 people worldwide, Sun's research program is dwarfed by R&D efforts at IBM and Microsoft, which also have speech-recognition projects in the works. Back in 1998, at a Chinese facility, Microsoft began research into speech recognition that could simplify computer use. The software giant has added voice-recognition capabilities to its Office XP product and has released test versions of speech-development tools supporting its .Net Web services strategy.

IBM researchers are developing and testing translation software that would let travelers and others talk into a handheld that would translate and speak aloud their comments.

In its effort, Sun is using its own Java language to build on an existing version of speech-recognition software. The company joined forces with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University--which had a speech-recognition program called Sphinx--as well as researchers at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories. Together, the team has developed open-source software that so far boasts a 1,000-word vocabulary.

Sun says one goal of the project is to show that the Java platform can handle central processing unit- and memory-intensive tasks. The Java-based version of Sphinx is beating two previous versions of Sphinx in accuracy and topping one in speed, according to the company. But Sun researcher Willie Walker isn't ready to brag too much yet. "The proof won't be there until we solve the 64,000-word vocabulary," he said. One potential use of the software, Walker said, is to help disabled people access computers.