Sonalight Lets Android Users Text While Driving Without Touching A Phone

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Android users finally have a way to show up their iPhone-toting, Siri-using counterparts. With Sonalight Text by Voice, a new Y Combinator-backed startup, you can perform entirely hands-free texting. And by hands-free, I mean you don’t have to push a button, tap the screen, or perform any other actions that would require you to take your hands off the wheel. Yes, that’s right – Sonalight is perfect for texting while driving.

The app originally made its debut back in October, but through the course of the YC program, the team made a lot of improvements to the technology on the back-end. The lastest version (ver. 3), introduced in February, brings several enhancements, making it worth another look, had you used it before with mixed results.

“Our product has come a long way…it used to not work very well at all,” Sonalight co-founder Spenser Skates admits. “We’ve improved our product tremendously, along both the voice recognition backend and the user interface,” he says.

While the focus for now is making texting-by-voice easier, the company’s goal is to really re-think how we can use speech to better interact with our devices.

“Touch interfaces before Apple came out with the iPhone were not very good to use,” says Skates, who founded the company alongside Curtis Liu. “It’s like people had taken point-and-click interfaces and moved them over to tablets and other things. We see speech the same way,” he says. “It’s not very natural for people to use.”

For example, the state-of-the-art text by voice system in the Android OS today involves a number of steps: unlocking the phone, launching the messaging app, choosing the contact, tapping in the text field and then tapping the voice icon. Only then does voice come into play.

Siri, while a bit better, still involves picking the phone up and pressing a button.

Sonalight, on the other hand, works completely hands-free. The app does have to be launched initially, but then it just runs in the background, ready for activation. The keyword trigger to kick it into action is “text by voice.”

Amazingly, the trick even works when the phone is just sitting there, its screen black, and sleeping. Say “text by voice” and it wakes up, asking “who do you want to text?” Give it a name, and it prompts you through the rest of the task, no tapping  or touching involved.

The app also allows you to set an autoresponder for texts and will automatically read texts received to you, so you can respond by voice.

In tests, the voice recognition aspects were fairly good, at least on par with Siri, if not better. (Siri never gets me. Your mileage may vary.) The app uses a combination of Google’s built-in speech recognition libraries and open source technology, and only seemed to stumble with proper names within texts, like “Jill” for “Joel,” for example. Overall, though, a good experience. And good enough to make this iPhone user just a little jealous.

There is a trade-off, however. Apps running in the background can drain battery life, and this is an area where Sonalight is attempting to make improvements now. But further down the road, the plan is to move the technology into other verticals.

“We wanted to nail [texting] first,” says Skates. “Once we make the experience good there, we’ll move into other things like email, navigation, maps, and looking up stuff in Yelp, or whatever.” Sounds a bit Siri-like?

Perhaps, but those move will have to wait for a bit. The company wants to focus on doing one thing right first: texting.

“We see a lot of people doing voice apps. They try to do everything, but they end up doing a very poor job,” Skates explains.

Sonalight, which has been used to send over 350,000 text messages to date and has over 40,000 downloads on Android, is now available for free from the Android Market…err…Google Play here.