Hate Voice Mail? New Services Turn Recordings Into Text

Punching in a password and listening to voice mails on hand-held devices is inconvenient — or rude if you’re in a meeting, at a party or in a restaurant.

A slew of new services using voice-recognition technology aim to eliminate the hassle of checking voice messages on wireless devices. These services transcribe recorded messages into text, which then is sent as email to email-equipped devices such as personal digital assistants and BlackBerrys, or as a short text message to phones that don’t have the email function. If in doubt about transcripts’ accuracy, you can always click on the attached audio files or dial in to hear the original voice mail.

To see how efficient these services are at transcription, I tested two voice-recognition applications: one from start-up SimulScribe, based in New York, and another from Atlanta-based SpinVox, a subsidiary of SpinVox Ltd. of the U.K.

Overall, both services work pretty well and are easy to use. I was able to read transcribed texts in a fraction of the time I would have spent dialing in to hear them. I was also able to sift through my messages and go directly to the ones I wanted to check, as opposed to having to listen to every single one sequentially. And the transcripts end the hassle of having to jot down names, numbers or addresses.

Another advantage is that the transcribed messages are sent immediately after the voice mails. When I was on a train and passing in and out of reception areas, I got my written messages faster than if I had tried voice mail only. Users can forward the messages to others or reply by calling back, sending an email or text messaging.

Signing up with SimulScribe.com took just minutes. After setting up an online account naming a cellphone carrier, I got a confirmation email with instructions on how to activate the service on my phone. SimulScribe, launched this past September, costs $9.95 a month for 40 transcribed messages plus 25 cents for each additional message. The service is compatible with all wireless carriers.

Currently, SimulScribe transcribes English voice mails only. A voice mail left on my phone in Spanish wasn’t transcribed at all. The company says it’s testing a Spanish system to add to the service in a couple of weeks.

Activating SpinVox’s Spin-my-Vmail on the phone was easy, too. After signing up on spinvox.com, the company sends subscribers a guide to using the service on the phone. I was able to activate “call forwarding busy/no answer” to divert messages to my SpinVox voice mail just by changing a setting in my T-Mobile’s cellphone settings menu.

I received an email in my mailbox whenever someone left me a voice mail. Each had the number of the caller, the transcript, date and time the message was received, plus a message code I could type into the keypad after accessing my voice mail to hear the original audio.

U.S. customers can get a free one-year trial by sending an email to gamma@spinvox.com, during which time the company expects to launch the service in the U.S. first through Cincinnati Bell and later through other carriers. Bloggers can also test Spin-my-Blog, which lets users speak a posting to their blogs from any phone. Sign-up for that is also at spinvox.com.

SpinVox, first launched in the U.K. in May 2005, transcribes in English, French, Spanish and German. Unlike SimulScribe, messages left to me in Spanish were successfully transcribed.

One friend who left me a voice mail on both services said she was pleased to be reminded by SimulScribe that her message would be transcribed so she should speak slowly and clearly.

Users of SimulScribe get unlimited inbox storage so they don’t have to delete old mail. Both services work better with hand-held email devices such as Treos or BlackBerrys than with the cellphones that don’t have the email capability. The number of characters that can be transcribed into SMS text is limited.

With SimulScribe, long messages delivered by SMS are parsed over multiple text messages. The same happens when customers use SpinVox on CDMA cellphones. Customers using SpinVox on GSM phones like those from Cingular or T-Mobile fit three-minute calls on one text.

Sometimes, the transcriptions contain misspellings, missing words or unnecessary punctuation marks. A friend left me a voice mail on my cellphone with SpinVox’s Spin-my-Vmail service. She ended it by asking me if I was sick of Thai food, but the transcribed note, amusingly, turned it into: “Hi Sarmad, it’s Kain(?). I’m calling at 4:09(?). I just wanted to see what the plans were for tonight. Are you interest in dinner, are you up for Lasagna(?).”

Words — mostly names — spelled phonetically, some numbers and undecipherable words are usually followed by a question mark.

Aside from sporadic imprecision, I liked SimulScribe more, mostly because it eliminates the need to dial in any passwords to get a voice version of transcribed messages. But it’s hard to beat the free trial of SpinVox and its multiple-language transcription capability. Both services are a nice addition to hand-held devices if you can overlook a few nuisances.

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