When we surf the Internet, or write a document, we perform simple actions like pressing a key or moving a mouse without the slightest thought. Perhaps thoughtlessness is the reason that since the PC’s earliest days, programmers failed to consider those suffering from motor defects in their upper limbs. People with this kind of handicap are currently confined to staring bewildered at the screen, while their keyboard and mouse sit by uselessly.
Commodio, an Israel start-up based in Kfar Sava, is trying to move the conventional interaction from the hands to a slightly more elevated body part - the mouth. The computer will be operated solely through voice commands for every operation, including starting up programs, Internet surfing, sending e-mails, and typing a document all without the use of hands.
”We realized that pointing and writing devices are inconvenient to use. We use them now because there’s nothing else. We’re just used to it,” says Commodio cofounder and CTO Dr. Leonid Brailovsky. “Even normal persons working for 10 hours with a mouse get wrist pains at some point. At first, we considered developing a product that would eliminate using a mouse, but then we realized that our product also enables us to get rid of the keyboard, and we continued in that direction.”
Commodio’s Qpointer software is based on simple technology for analyzing the screen. The software, located in the computer memory, constantly analyzes the operations taking place on the screen: the structure of the windows, the words appearing, and the various icons and other graphic interface elements. The user requests a desired operation verbally, for example, “Close the window.” The software identifies the object, and displays a numeric tag next to it. In this case, every X representing the closing of a window is assigned this tag. If there are a number of windows on the screen, the computer will assign each a different number to each icon.
In the next step, the user says the name of the digit corresponding to the window to be closed. The computer “understands” the verbal command, and closes the window. Exactly the same action takes place during surfing the user pronounces the digit appearing on the link. If users want to dictate a certain text, they say the word “dictation”, followed by the text to be dictated. For all intents and purposes, this is a voice mouse.
”We didn’t develop the speech engine itself,” Brailovsky notes. “Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), which did, is letting us use it for free for our developments in the field (Microsoft markets the engine through its Office XP software, B.G.).”
The development is a screen-content recognition engine, which supports all operating systems, starting with Windows 98. The system requires some adaptation, since it is designed for an average profile. Users present their profiles by dictating text. The system can store a number of profiles, according to the number of users.
Microsoft has chosen Commodio as its vendor of choice for voice operation. “We’re currently cooperating with Microsoft, and we may expand our cooperation in the future,” Brailovsky says.
”Globes”: Does expanding cooperation mean you will be acquired?
Brailovsky: ”Perhaps. We certainly don’t rule out a connection with Microsoft, although right now, we’re still building the company, and strengthening the brand we’ve built. For now, we’re marketing the product in the market for computer access products - Assistive Technologies. We’re the only ones so far providing access to all computer software through voice commands.
”There are products that work require full integration with every single program, which significantly reduces the possibilities for supporting applications. Our product doesn’t need integration, because it’s based on what physically appears on the screen, regardless of what software is being operated. That give wide range of action, as you say what you see, without relying on complicated commands.”
As a young start-up, do you now have to begin educating the market?
”I don’t have to educate an entire market to throw away their computer mice and keyboards, since I’m appealing to people who can’t use mice and keyboards, and therefore can adapt much more quickly. For example, we appeal to amputees, or those who suffering from palsy, and find it difficult to operate a mouse accurately. We also target early adopters, who like trying new things after all, it’s very sexy to surf the Internet without using your hands.”
Commodio is now trying to find a strategic partner in the US; so far, its products supports only English. The requirements for operating the systems are quite modest: a Pentium 3 500 megahertz computer, and a microphone supplied together with the system. The product is sold on the US market for $189.
Brailovsky: “We’re also marketing in Japan, and negotiating for cooperation with a fairly large Japanese concern for adapting to that market. We also plan to grant licenses to other concerns and for other applications later on, such as in data security. As a small company, we don’t want to go in other directions; we want to let others develop more products, using the technology. As far as the European market is concerned, we are carefully considering the matter, mostly because the product has to be localized for every market. With time, however, I believe we’ll get there, too. Microsoft could certainly be one of our strategic partners.”
Aren’t you worried that Microsoft could assign several programmers to develop a similar product? After all, part of your product is based on its technology.
”Microsoft can do practically anything, but the screen recognition product is only part of what our company is developing. Obviously, they could define a project, design a product, and start developing it, but we already have a working product with customers, so I don’t see that it’s worthwhile for them.”
What about your competition?
”We have several competitors, such as IBM’s (NYSE: IBM) Via Voice product, and Philips’s Free Speech product. Our main competitor is US company Dragon Systems (acquired by ScanSoft (Nasdaq: SSFT), B G.), with its Dragon NaturallySpeaking product. They’ve been in the market almost 15 years, but they work only with specific applications, which is a disadvantage.”
Commodio has raised $2.5 million to date in three financing rounds, the largest of which was its $1 million seed round. The Comsor Trading Fund, a joint enterprise of Comverse Technology(Nasdaq:CMVT) subsidiary Comverse Investments and Quantum Industrial Holdings, owned by George Soros. A number of private investors later joined, as well as Keter Plastics. The company is expected to close a $3 million financing round in the coming months.
The small accessories market is next in line for Commodio, where it plans to make people lay down their palmtop stylus. “We’re planning to adapt the product to the new generation of PDAs, and to any device with a screen and rich content. Why use a tiny pen that's hard to maneuver in a mobile environment? Why not use a small microphone with Bluetooth standard, that will enable you to communicate with your electronic assistants through speech?”, Brailovsky asks.
As part of this plan, Commodio wants to reach an OEM agreement with a strategic partner. It is hoping for such cooperation with a large handheld computer manufacturer. Time will tell.
Founded: August 2000
Founder: CEO Ramy Metzger and CTO Leonid Brailovsky
Product: Software for voice operation of PCs
Employees: 10, including two in the US
Previous financing round: $2.5 million in three rounds
Investors: ComSor Trading Fund, Keter Plastics, private investors
Competition: ScanSoft, IBM, Philips
web site: www.commodio.com
Published by Globes [online] - www.globes.co.il - on February 3, 2003