Vocollect: Pioneering Person-to-Computer Communication with Voice Recognition Technology
Pundits have been forecasting the death of paper communications since the birth of the personal computer. Yet paper still remains in widespread use even though it actually can have a negative impact on efficiency, accuracy and storage in many business environments.
Vocollect, Inc., a pioneer in voice-directed work, has in a sense been working to make paper obsolete since 1987.
“In certain industries, the spoken word is the most efficient way of communicating and giving directions,” says Roger Byford, company co-founder and president of Vocollect Healthcare Systems (VHS), a new division of the parent company. “If workers are walking around with pieces of paper, reading and writing, their hands and eyes are busy when they should be free to focus on the task.”
Penn Hills-based Vocollect, a BFTP alumni company, is in the business of what Byford calls “person-to-computer” communication. “We build wearable computers that you can actually have a conversation with,” he says. “The typical end-user is the person on a distribution center floor, the one who’s finding, retrieving and delivering stored products.”
Users wear a headset and microphone that is connected to a small belt-mounted electronic device, which in turn is wirelessly connected to a central computer. Vocollect Voice, the company’s unique blend of hardware, software and voice dialogs, creates a direct and personal communication between team members and the host system.
The system provides computer-generated speech that gives assignment details on location, quantity, destination and other key information. In turn, the person can interact with the computer simply by talking. His or her speech is converted into data and returned to the central computer.
“By taking paper out of the equation,” says Byford, “we’re able to dramatically improve accuracy, boost productivity, cut training time and lower operating costs. The workers are completely autonomous. The savings really add up for our customers. Payback is typically in less than a year.”
Life on the “Bleeding Edge”
Vocollect, which employs 200 people in Pennsylvania and 350 worldwide, turned to Ben Franklin Technology Partners early on for help building its voice-recognition product development team.
“Ours is a complex product involving multiple technologies, and development was expensive. We were very much on the ‘bleeding edge,’ with a big learning curve,” says Byford. “It would have been very difficult to get the company started without their help. And it was certainly reassuring to venture capitalists that BFTP was interested.” In addition to business advice, BFTP provided the company with more than $347,000 in funding over a three-year period.
As an alumni company of BFTP, Vocollect continues to give back to its “alma mater” by networking with startup and early-stage companies in the Ben Franklin portfolio.
“The relationships with these companies helps Vocollect as well,” says Byford. “It’s hard to think how Pennsylvania could better support entrepreneurial growth than through BFTP. And think about the collateral return on investment that BFTP brings by promoting local businesses-let’s just say, we’re prime supporters of the local pizza shops.”
Diving Headfirst into Health Care
The vast majority of Vocollect’s customers-99 percent-are in the supply chain and distribution industry. In an effort to diversify, in 2004 Byford and a team of company visionaries began researching other industries that would benefit from the company’s voice-directed work offerings.
As a direct result of their findings, earlier this year the company acquired Adherence Technologies Corporation, a leader in voice-activated documentation and communication systems for nursing homes. Byford shifted his responsibilities to become president of the new VHS division. Certified nursing assistants are the largest segment of users in this market.
“Talk about workers who need their hands and eyes completely free!” says Byford. “These nurse’s aides are responsible for multiple residents, each with multiple needs, on a day-in, day-out basis. Our system helps them manage their residents, improve the quality of care they provide and standardize their reporting, which is carefully governed by strict laws.”
Keynotes October, 2006
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