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Voice over Workplace (VoWP): SAP's Ongoing Research into Hands-Free Access to SAP Software

by Dr. Frankie James | SAPinsider

January 1, 2002

by Dr. Frankie James, SAP Labs SAPinsider - 2002 (Volume 3), January (Issue 1)

SAP is facing the challenge of making its software accessible to people with disabilities. SAP Labs' Corporate Research Center (CRC) is especially interested in using voice interfaces to provide accessibility. These efforts are focused on voice-enabling desktop applications. The investigations are taking place in collaboration with SAP Labs' new Voice Center, which is primarily interested in voice telephony applications.

CRC is currently developing a spoken interface to mySAP Workplace, called Voice over Workplace (VoWP), that will support physically disabled users who can use a visual display but cannot use a keyboard and mouse.

The key challenge in developing a speech interface for any complex graphical environment is to maximize user efficiency while reducing potential ambiguities. When using a mouse, users specify their actions directly by clicking on the exact item of interest. Ambiguities between two items with the same name (e.g., two links called "Tuesday" in two different MiniApps) are resolved by the physical interaction component (the mouse click). When using speech, however, users cannot resolve ambiguities physically, so another method must be provided.

Research at the CRC on voice navigation has focused on providing a speech interface that supports ambiguity handling while maximizing user efficiency. Over the past nine months, we have conducted two user studies comparing three different interaction styles for voice navigation, and are developing a model that we call "implicit scoping." In this model, ambiguities are handled through assumptions that the system makes based on common uses of the Workplace.

For example, when the user is working with an SAP MiniApp, we assume that subsequent commands are intended to control that MiniApp. If the user says "Tuesday" and "Tuesday" appears as a link within the MiniApp, that link is activated. If a match is not found within the current MiniApp for a given command, the VoWP interface looks for a match elsewhere on the screen using a prioritization scheme. This resolves many potential ambiguities without slowing down the user by asking for clarification. When ambiguities cannot be resolved in this way, the interface presents the user with a set of numbered choices.

The next hurdle for the CRC is to extend our voice navigation interface to support data entry. With both of these capabilities in place, VoWP can provide an access solution for physically disabled users and also support others who may not wish to use a keyboard or mouse. Consider sidewalk curb cuts: they were designed for wheelchair users, but have become a boon for people with baby strollers, bicycles, and skateboards. In much the same way, "electronic curb cuts," such as voice applications designed for physically disabled users, may turn out to be helpful for other user groups.

At some point in our lives, we are all handicapped by our environment or our tools. Solutions that make technology accessible at all to people with disabilities can be used to make the same technology even more accessible to all people.

More details about voice navigation using VoWP are forthcoming in a paper submitted to the CHI 2002 conference on human-computer interaction, entitled "Voice over Workplace (VoWP): Voice Navigation in a Complex Business GUI." For further information, contact Frankie James at SAP Labs' Corporate Research Center (

The Voice over Workplace research project was initiated by CRC director Richard Swan and Eckhard Farrenkopf, and is currently led by Frankie James and Jeff Roelands.

Dr. Frankie James is a senior researcher at SAP Labs' Corporate Research Center and the leader of the Voice over Workplace project. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University's Computer Science Department in 1998 for her research related to audio HTML interfaces for blind users. While at Stanford, she also worked for CSLI's Archimedes Project on the Total Access System (TAS), which was designed to access computer-based systems using a single access device that is uniquely suited to their needs. Dr. James joined the CRC in March 2001 from RIACS, a NASA contractor, where she worked on voice interfaces to semi-autonomous robots. She is a member of the ACM's Special Interest Groups on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI) and Computers and the Physically Handicapped (SIGCAPH).

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