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The iPhone Can it Walk the Talk?

August 5, 2008
by Joe Marion
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I read with interest this week, Dr. John Halamka’s blog on the iPhone (, August 5 2008), wherein Dr. Halamka relays his experience in using the new G3 iPhone. As a consumer device, he concludes the iPhone is well suited due to its speed and graphics capability. As a business device, the iPhone falls down on several accounts, one being its lack of a tactile keyboard. I’ll let you visit his blog to get a few good laughs over the predictive word results of his typing. The part that caught my attention was the typing difficulty on the iPhone due to the lack of a real keyboard, and the need to navigate through three different screens to get to various symbols such as the backwards slash (\).

While the other features of the iPhone have merit for medical application, it’s the typing that seems to disappoint. I got to wondering – what might be a “killer application” for healthcare? What I came up with seems plausible, and well suited to medical applications. Why not couple the iPhone’s image management functionality and email capability with speech processing to create a more useable diagnostic and treatment assistance device?

I was impressed with McKesson Corporation’s RSNA 2007 exhibit last November where they mimicked the Apple and Microsoft hand gesture technology to view images on large flat panel displays. These technologies seem well suited to image reading in their ability to easily move and resize images, and change cases on the screen. McKesson also linked the display to the iphone as a convenient means for delivering diagnostic results.

The convenience of results delivery and viewing convenience seem to be complicated by the difficulty in a physician’s ability to respond! Imagine the convenience of viewing study results while commuting, but the frustration of the inability to respond. Now imagine if the iPhone’s capabilities could be married to speech processing technology, such that the accompanying email could be read to the physician, and the physician could easily use speech recognition to reply to the email? The application of speech recognition technology could offset the iPhone’s typing limitations and make it easier to use.

Clearly, one stumbling block is the processor horsepower and memory requirements of speech recognition applications. I can personally relate to this as an early IBM MedSpeak/Radiology reseller! The turning point for speech recognition was the advent of the Intel Pentium Pro 200 MHz. processor (anyone remember this!), which finally provided enough horsepower to make the application commercially viable. This meant lugging around a tower computer for demonstrations, which was a real challenge when traveling by air. IBM went so far as to ask Intel about packaging up the Pentium Pro in a laptop. They tell the story that when the Intel engineers stopped laughing, they explained that the Pentium Pro ran so hot that it would melt the plastic case of a laptop! So, resellers such as myself had to wait for the second version of software that optimized the application to run on a 166 MHz. Pentium MMX processor that would operate in a laptop.

So, the question is, does the iPhone have sufficient processing capability to support a speech recognition application? Probably not. But, there are now speech applications that will allow for voice files to be captured over a phone line and processed by a server. All that would be necessary would be an interactive email application that could use voice commands to play and record messages, and then process the recorded response into text that could be approved and sent as regular email. Now a user could rely on the iPhone’s gesture technology to access an email, review an image, and set up a response, and then use speech and voice recognition to respond.

For anyone who has used speech recognition applications, you will know that it is much faster to speak a response than it is to type one. I use the technology all the time when traveling, as I find it much easier to talk an email response than to type one on a small laptop keyboard.

Anyway, I wonder if someone will catch on to this, or if it would prove as awkward to use as the iPhone keyboard? Anyone care to comment?

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