New Bluetooth Headset With Voice Recognition 'Talks Back'

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Bluetooth wireless headsets for mobile phones are puzzling: We're supposed to control them with couple of unmarked buttons and get feedback from a single indicator light.

What is the headset trying to say when the LED is blinking that particular way? How do I connect it to a new phone? Do I press the big button or the small button, or both at once? The user interface is as cryptic as an alien artifact.

On Tuesday, BlueAnt Wireless launched the first headset that, by comparison, is clearly from Planet Earth. The $130 V1 headset recognizes spoken English commands, and responds, also in English.

It's eerily like having an automated call center in your ear. It can't do everything that a standard headset combined with a voice-recognizing phone can do, but it's a useful advance for an industry that's been focused on everything except ease of use.

Headsets are marketed based on how much ambient noise they suppress, how small they are and how long their batteries last. Yet Shawn Score, president of Best Buy Mobile, says 20 percent of the Bluetooth headsets it sells are returned. When the Best Buy employees "pair," or connect, a new headset to the customer's phone in the store, the return rate drops to a few percent. Clearly, a lot of people find these things hard to set up, and I don't blame them.

If you haven't memorized the procedure for entering pair mode with a regular headset and don't have the manual handy, good luck. Burning incense or tossing some salt over your shoulder might help.

With the BlueAnt V1, this is what you do: Press the big button once. A male voice says "Say a command." You say "Pair mode." Then the voice walks you through what to do on the phone to get it connected.

If you've forgotten the magic words, you press the button and ask "What can I say?" The V1 will patiently go through the commands it accepts. You can ask it whether the headset is connected to the phone, and how much battery charge is left.

When you get a call, the headset reads out the number, then asks whether you want to answer or ignore it. You don't need to touch the headset, as you do with competing models. Don't worry — people around you will get used to you blurting out "Answer!" Remember, years ago people who talked loudly to unseen friends while walking down the sidewalk were considered crazy.

So far so good. But the headset is quite limited in the number of terms it can recognize, and you can't train it to recognize or say new phrases. This means that when you receive a call, it will read out the number, digit by digit. It can't tell you "It's your wife calling again."

Another big limitation is that you can't dial calls from the V1 by saying the name of someone in your phone's contacts list.

You can, however, program seven numbers that it can call for you. Some phones allow you to program a speed dial for each number, from 1 to 9, and the V1 can use those — but it reserves 1 for voicemail and 5 for Google Inc.'s 411 service. So you can tell it "Call speed dial six" and it will do so.

Not all phones allow these sorts of speed dials. Apple Inc.'s iPhone 3G is an example. In those cases, you have to get a call from a number before you can store it in the headset's own speed dial list. Then you have to press the "Volume Down" button on the headset to store it. This isn't exactly a usability advance over standard headsets.

If you have a phone that takes voice commands, those will work with the V1 as well. Since the headset can do things the phone can't, and vice versa, this is a good combination. When I tested this with a BlackBerry Pearl, pressing the phone's voice command button elicited a female voice in my ear, asking me what I wanted to do. When I pressed the V1's button, I got the male voice. It was almost like being 2 years old again and having my parents at my beck and call.

In other ways, the V1 behaved like a good, standard headset. It was comfortable to wear. Apart from the big "command me" button, there are two volume buttons. The rated talk time is five hours.

In loud environments, the V1 did nearly as well as the latest Jawbone headset from Aliph (also $130), which prides itself on military-grade noise suppression. Both are good enough that your main problem is likely to be the sound of the wind whistling over the microphone rather than ambient noise.

The V1 costs twice as much as an older BlueAnt headset without voice recognition, but my guess is you'll find it a good value, particularly if your phone lacks voice recognition.

The voice-recognition feature won't be unique to BlueAnt — it's provided by a third party, and it will probably show up headsets from a few manufacturers within a year. Beefing up the voice recognition to make it more versatile likely will take a few more years, but it won't be long before we can tell a headset to "Call my office and tell them I'll be in at 10, then book me a massage for 9, m'kay?"