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Verbal – Voice Internet

It’s often hard to conceive the fact that 70% of the worlds population is not online. Think about it, that’s almost 5 Billion people, not using the internet. Why? Here are a few top reasons for what is known as the digital divide; cost of usage, lack of access and perhaps the biggest – illiteracy, both non-literate communities (by tradition or choice) and the illiterate (through lack of education). But what if there was another way to get online.

What’s the Big Deal?

Mexico City, an unlikely location for a potentially highly significant technological advancement, is home to Flock, a digital ad agency. Flock have developed a concept for a voice driven internet, using speech to access the internet. They call it Verbal.

This will break down the barrier of expensive hardware and data connections, simply requiring a phone – any type of phone. The user can make calls that go to a cloud server using speech recognition software that converts the requests to text and then uses the regular internet to retrieve data and speak it back to the user.

The service isn’t quite the full internet as we know it instead, quite wisely, it’s based on Apps. There is a search app that connects to Wikipedia, Google and Wolfram Alpha. This retrieves basic information and facts. There is also an Email app that composes and sends emails based on your voice commands.

Of course in many non-literate areas the very concept of email and searching will still need to be explained and taught’. But the possibilities of utility focused apps is huge, a Health app for example could be a vital tool, with massive impact.

How useful is it for you?

If you’re reading this online or through email, well a voice activated internet maybe not be especially compelling to you, or that useful – unless you’re about to go on a remote missions trip of course.

However, bridging the digital divide is gaining a huge amount of attention from some big organisations. The One Laptop Per Child programme is perhaps one of the best known working in this area.

As a Christian, being able to bring vital information to the lips and ears of some of the most rural and cut off communities on earth should be a big deal too. There are of course careful considerations to be given to the long term effect of connecting these communities, especially those with ancient traditions and those wanting to maintain certain ways of life. I’ll leave far more qualified people to debate that.

However, the ability to bring massive health advantages, saving lives and most importantly reaching them with the Gospel can’t be ignored.

The Verbal project is actually being funded on KickStarter, for a perhaps surprisingly low pledge goal. So, rather than concluding this tech is for you, I’m suggesting you consider backing it instead.

With KickStarter you don’t part with any money unless the full total is raised – so it’s a pretty safe investment in that sense. The range of rewards are quite nice too, from t‑shirts and USB wristbands to trips to Mexico.

What value could it add to ministry?

Let’s get back to that huge potential of reaching rural, non-literate communities with the Gospel. As many of you know Christian Missions have a rich history of using audio to share and spread the gospel. Radio is still going strong, but this could add another great channel of more direct personal and customised messages and programmes.

First off, a Bible app on this service that allows listening to Scripture based on a verbal request for a passage or even a subject search would great. A reading plan’ that people could call into each day and listen to the next section. A system to share verses of the bible directly with another Verbal user. These are just a few immediate examples. YouVersion are you getting this?

Health programmes, counselling programmes, farming programmes or any of the main roles of radio packaged into searchable or request-able content.

The ability to connect and interact through messaging services, or to receive teaching and discipleship through one point of contact in an oral based app.

I think this opens a new world of possibilities, and presents some interesting challenges as we consider the user experience and contemplate verbal interfaces, and expanding a voice recognition system into many unique dialects.

Right now the system is based on English and Spanish, so it will be some time before the more remote minor languages and dialects are able to use the system, but one big plus point is that it will be Open Source so as Christians we can all dive in and contribute our skills to build and grow this tool.

Exciting potential indeed.


Posted on Jan 13, 2014 by Sam Peckham

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