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Danny Chan La, Deseret Morning News
Joe Shepherd demonstrates the game "Rock Band," which features simulated guitar playing and singing analysis.

SANDY — It's common for video gamers to mutter or yell at their game screens, but more and more, those words are actually helping them play.

Thanks in part to Sandy-based Fonix Speech Inc., gamers can tell their characters what to do rather than machine-gunning their fingers to nubs on the controller buttons.

"Go! Go! Go!" Fonix Speech's IT manager, Joe Shepherd, chimed into a microphone during a demonstration on Monday, and a moment later the characters in his attack group went, went, went. They also followed other commands without question: "Assault!" "Infiltrate!" "Hold position!"

In another game, a SWAT team likewise followed its commander's instructions: "Breach door!" "Secure!"

"What we've found on these games is that by having the speech interaction, it actually puts you further into the game," said Lynn Shepherd, Joe's father and vice president of product development for Fonix Speech. "One of the taglines we use is 'Get in the game.' And speech psychologically really brings you in a lot more."

With already more than two dozen game titles using Fonix' VoiceIn technology, the company is awaiting the pending launch of "Tom Clancy's EndWar," which is expected to have a command vocabulary topping any of its previous games, the best of which have a vocabulary of about 70 commands.

"These guys (Ubisoft) have put a lot of work into the user interface," Lynn Shepherd said. "They're kind of taking a big step out in front with what they're doing with voice."

Fonix Speech has been working with Ubisoft on the "EndWar" game for about six months, and while details of the game are scarce even for Fonix Speech officials, the voice command element apparently works well.

An "EndWar" review at IGN.com notes players often struggle with unit selection, command and camera control.

"All of this can be done with the controller in 'EndWar,' but you can also use your voice to play the game," the reviewer noted. "With the press of a button, you can order attacks, swap your vantage point or commandeer control points. The exact same commands can all be issued simply by talking — and it works. Aside from the times when we mumbled, the game had no trouble recognizing what we said."

Expected to be released this spring in several languages, "EndWar" also is expected to break another video-game barrier by having voice commands that work as well on game consoles as they do on the PC.

"I've played a lot of these types of games on the PC — you build your army, you command troops — and it works really well with the mouse and the keyboard," Joe Shepherd said. "But they've never really been able to pull it off for the console. And so by adding voice, it's added a whole new dimension, making it work a whole lot better on the console. It's opened up a whole new world."

Fonix Speech, a wholly owned subsidiary of Fonix Corp., has opened new worlds in video-game speech recognition in recent years. In addition to games in which characters follow voice commands, the company's technology in "Rock Band" and "High School Musical: Sing It" judges the vocal and instrument-playing talent of the gamer. The company's technology is featured in games used on PCs and a variety of console platforms: Nintendo Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStations 2 and 3.

One reason that game developers select Fonix's VoiceIn technology is its conservative use of processor power and memory, allowing the game developers to concentrate on better graphics and other elements. "With all these graphics and everything else going on, there's not a lot of room to take a lot of processing away from that," Lynn Shepherd said.

Fonix Speech's niche also has been strengthened by its technology's accuracy, he said.

"In a game environment, you've got people talking softly, yelling, perhaps people talking in the background. What makes the task especially difficult is dealing with those and maintaining accuracy. And that is the one area where our technology has excelled — not only the ability to run on all these platforms but the ability to perform in these very noisy environments," he said.

Today's video game speech technology has come a long way from early versions, which Lynn Shepherd acknowledges "didn't work very well."

The sophistication of today's technology is helping it become more accepted in the game marketplace.

"Now we've got technology that works well, we've got new users willing to use it and to try it. It's a new generation, basically, and that's a significant piece of the game market. With a new generation, a younger generation grows up with speech becoming part of their user environment, he said.

Video games will pave the way for more speech-recognition technology all around, he predicted. That's important to Fonix Speech. While video games represent about 30 percent of the company's business, its technology is used in mobile and wireless devices, toys and appliances, computer telephony systems and other markets. Several states use it in their telephone 5-1-1 traffic and tourism information offerings.

"The game market will drive a lot in that (overall) area," Lynn Shepherd said.

E-mail: [email protected]