Sonalight’s Voice-Powered App Enables Handsfree Texting

Apple made voice recognition tech a center-stage concern when it unveiled Siri alongside its iPhone 4S announcement, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other companies to do more with voice-powered tech in the mobile space. Sonalight, which showed off its product at this week’s Y Combinator Demo Day, thinks voice tech is better put to use tackling real issues users have with their mobiles in everyday settings, like texting while driving. Sonalight co-founder Spenser Skates thinks that the tech behind Sonalight could eventually provide the basis for a range of voice-powered services.

Skates showed BetaKit Sonalight’s launch product, Text by Voice, an Android app that gives device owners full access to text messaging functions in a completely hands-free way; something Siri on the iOS platform still doesn’t provide, since it requires a button-press to activate and occasional glances at the screen to check its progress and accuracy. By contrast, Sonalight Text by Voice runs in the background, is voice-activated by a specific verbal command, reads back dictated content so users can verify its accuracy, and sends messages all without requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road. The app is free to use, and offers a paid upgrade to remove the company’s signature from messages.

“The idea is that you can have it in your pocket, and just talk to your pocket and have it talk back to you,” Skates said. “We’ve designed it to be completely hands-free, so that you don’t have to take it out and look at the screen. We’re excited because this is technology that hasn’t been available before.” It may sound like a strong claim, but Skates is largely correct; similar existing solutions available in Google Play (formerly the Android Market) either don’t run in the background, or require on-screen input at some stage in the texting process.

Sonalight may seem like a one-trick pony now, but Skates told BetaKit the team has plenty more planned, including ways to get around the limitations of Apple’s strict sandbox to make Text by Voice work on iPhones, too. Eventually, they intend to release an API to allow other developers access to the same kinds of tools. That API could be Sonalight’s best chance at achieving long-term lasting value; Apple isn’t likely to allow developers unfettered access to Siri anytime soon, and instead prefers picking and choosing which partners get to work with its virtual assistant (Wolfram Alpha and Yelp for instance), so Sonalight could be something developers without that special status turn to for voice-powered features.

There’s still the possibility that Sonalight’s functionality could be replicated by Google and offered to developers as part of its own voice services for Android; Sonalight actually employs Google’s own existing voice recognition tech, in combination with the CMU Sphinx open source software, to achieve its results. But Skates says he’s familiar with Google’s current voice strategy on mobile, and it focuses on mimicking Siri’s personal assistant attributes, not delivering practical services like voice-powered messaging. Plus, if Sonalight excels, as they already appear to be doing, they could become an acquisition target down the road for the search giant.

Skates and his co-founder Curtis Liu still have a lot of work to do; they plan on improving and building out more international support, for one. But they’ve managed to deliver a product that does exactly what users need it to do, without the compromises even big companies like Google and Apple had to make with their own voice-powered services; which is a remarkably good start.

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