Siri has been shaking things up for a couple of years now, and voice-activated technologies are proliferating. Technologists are making inroads with Siri as travel agent and apps (such as Desti) have been popping up that use voice as a primary means of data entry.
While no one has delivered a smashing, rip-roaring success in regards to voice integration within the travel cycle, experiments abound as established companies look to voice activation as both a differentiator and crowd-pleaser. Voice activated features give new users a reason to try the service and delivering a better experience to current users.
The latest foray into voice-tech comes from CheapAir.com. The voice activation feature is integrated with the company's latest iPhone and iPad release, allowing customers to use voice to search for flights amidst the 25 million aggregated fares.
The app works very simply: state your departure and destination points, date and time preferences, and the app will process the verbal input to deliver query results.
CheapAir CEO Jeff Klee:
We know that more and more travelers want to research flight options with their phones. We want to make it easy to check flights while out with friends, walking to the subway, or wherever our customers are. We’re doing everything we can to make it easier to find the lowest fares and the best flight options. CheapAir was the first travel site to let people search for fares using natural language, we were the first to show which in-flight amenities are on every flight, and now we’ve launched the first voice-activated iPhone app.
While it's not entirely clear that customers will be engaging in voice-activated flight search while out with friends, it's an intriguing concept. Once Siri can explain the options back to us, and engage with our answers as we seek out different options, a complete end-to-end solution may be quite compelling.
Although this isn’t something that customers specifically asked for, I think it represents a much needed step forward for flight search. When you think about it, since the first online travel sites there really have not been any major advancements in the process.
For the most part, we still have to fill out the same forms, going from field to field, with the same cumbersome calendars. This is especially tedious if you want to book on your Smartphone, as so many people now do. We don’t think we’ve solved the problem completely. There is still a ton we can do to make it better, but we do think this is a major step forward.
As far as the technology is concerned, Klee explains:
We piggy-backed off of the native iOS speech-to-text capability to handle the voice part, but we built our own semantic language parser to translate natural language text into a structured travel request query. It’s pretty sophisticated but over time will get better and better as it learns different people’s different language patterns.
We developed the natural language parser in-house. We started working on it late last summer and in September began testing it with a feature we launched on our desktop site called “Easy Search” which lets you search by typing a request instead of filling out a form. (For instance, “L.A. to JFK 4/10 – 4/12”.) We’ve spent several months refining and enhancing it, using feedback we’ve gotten from Easy Search users and now, with the voice component, we’re ready to take it to the next level.
For visual thinkers, however, this particular use-case for voice-activated search might prove challenging, given the difficulty of evaluating different options linearly rather than stacked on top of one another.
This may change quickly as the technology evolves:
Right now, we have only incorporated voice into the initial part of the process – making your request. From that point, we are still returning the flight options visually and still requiring you to use your finger and the keypad to select and purchase flights. But we are definitely looking to take things further.
Ultimately, we want to find the right balance between parts of the process that would be easier to do by voice and parts that would be easier to do with scrolling and tapping. We think that kind of integrated experience is what the future of travel technology will look like.
The functionality can be used on iPhone 4S and above in addition to the iPad 3, and is available for download at the iTunes Store.
For some added measure of forward-thought, here's a recap of 2013 predictions we shot at PhocusWright in November 2012: