OK Apple Siri and Google, are you ready for Hound?

SoundHound app
Source: SoundHound

SoundHound is known as a music discovery app that, like Shazam, lets consumers push a smartphone button while at a bar to see who's playing on the jukebox. It even spits out the lyrics in real time so the slightly inebriated can sing along.

But behind the scenes, the decade-old Silicon Valley start-up has been working on something that goes way beyond music.

SoundHound founder and CEO Keyvan Mohajer, who has a doctorate from Stanford University in speech recognition, wants to entirely change how we interact with our phones. (Tweet This)

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On Tuesday, the company pulled back the curtain on its technology that lets consumers use their voice to ask questions on just about any subject imaginable and get instant results. The app, called Hound, is being tested on the Android platform and will soon roll out on Apple iOS devices.

On the surface, it sounds like a niche start-up trying to take on Apple's Siri technology or Google voice search, but without the massive scale, distribution and engineering resources. There's some truth to that. SoundHound is only the 26th most popular free music app on the iPhone in the U.S., and it ranks 21st in the Google Play store, according to AppAnnie.

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But with the new service, SoundHound is trying to win by providing better technology. Rather than forcing consumers to speak unnaturally to a computer, only to be misunderstood and get inaccurate results, SoundHound's strategy includes a key message: Speak to a phone like you'd speak to a friend. No need to over exaggerate pronunciations.

"People talk to them, they will talk back to you, you will talk again, you will have a conversation with them," said Mohajer. "It's voice recognition, natural language and A.I. (artificial intelligence)."

Using the Hound app, consumers will be able to ask about weather, stock prices, travel times and distances as well as place phone calls and send text messages. The company also has a partnership with Expedia to look up flights and hotels, and is opening up the technology to developers so they can voice-enable their own apps.

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To show how the technolgy can all work, Mohajer starts his demo with a simple question like, "What time is it?" And then asks increasingly complex questions, leading up to, "How many days are there between the day after tomorrow and three days before the second Thursday in November 2022?"

An electronic female voice promptly replies, "There are 2,726 days between the day after tomorrow and Monday, November 7, 2022."

It understands context, too. So when Mohajer asks, "What's the population of China?" and follows immediately with "What about Japan?" the computer infers he's asking about Japan's population.

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In the San Francisco Bay Area, everyone is obsessed with home prices, so another part of the demo will resonate particularly well with potential homebuyers calculating monthly payments.

After calling up the mortgage calculator, Mohajer asks, "What is the monthly payment on a million dollar home?" Because Hound needs more information to provide an answer, it asks follow-up questions in response like, "What is the down payment?" and "What is the mortgage period?"

The homebuyer can get to the answer that way, or just ask it altogether like this: "What is the monthly payment on a million dollar home with a $100,000 down payment over 30 years with a 3.95 percent interest rate?" The phone replies, "Your monthly mortgage payment is $4270.84."

Snapshot of San Francisco real estate

In addition to mortgages, the financially savvy can ask for stock prices, price-to-earnings ratios, market values and other investing details.

"I'm really fired up about the finance vertical," said Larry Marcus, a partner at Walden Venture Capital and SoundHound board member. Other investors in the company include Translink Capital and Felicis Ventures.

In areas like food recipes where SoundHound doesn't currently have deep inventory, the query will default to a typical Web search, using Microsoft's Bing engine.

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Of course, rival technology is certain to get better.

Google said at its developer conference last week that its error rate in speech recognition is down to 8 percent from 23 percent in 2013. The blog 9to5mac reported in February that Apple's latest iOS release improved by recognizing "more natural sounding speech synthesis."

SoundHound is banking on its ability to work across devices and to have developers integrate the software into their apps.

Mohajer finishes his demo by telling Hound to "play "Thriller" by Michael Jackson."

Hound obliges.