The sheer brilliance of Spinvox

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 16th August 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline

Stephen Fry is stunned by the sheer brilliance of the Spinvox, which translates voicemail into text

However uninterested you may be in technology, it is likely that you use a voicemail system. If you have a mobile, then it will probably be the one provided as standard by your network. You dial 121, or 123, and dance the ghastly Menu Minuet until you’re done. The Apple iPhone has introduced a patented “visual voicemail” system, which presents a list of onscreen messages enabling you to play them in whichever order you like, but for 15 years that has been it so far as innovation goes.

But now we have SpinVox, a most extraordinary service that takes your voice messages, translates them into text and then sends them to you as either email or SMS text message. Or both.

Photograph: Steve Forrest/Rex Features

Here’s how it goes. I call you up, but you are out, or busy, and I am played your outgoing message: “Yodi, this is Dork Talk Reader, sorry I’se not in, but like leave a message after the tone, innit, and I’ll be in your face laters.” I leave my message: “Sorry to miss you, darling Dork Talk Reader. Do call back when you have a moment. I have momentous news. I guarantee it will rock the foundations of your world. Toodle-pip.” Now, if you, Dork Talk Reader, are a SpinVox subscriber, within minutes or less you will get a text as from my number that looks like this, inverted commas included:

“Sorry to miss you darling dork talk reader. Do call back when you have a moment. I have momentous news. I guarantee it will rock the foundations of your world. Toodle (?) pip” – spoken through SpinVox <*n> where <*n> refers to the number assigned to the message. You can call a SpinVox number (which will replace your old network voicemail number) and press *n to hear my message the old-fashioned way.

What is so magical and satisfying about the whole process is how astonishingly good the SpinVox engine is at rendering into accurate, grammatical, punctuated text even the most slurred, heavily accented or rapid-fire speech. In the example above it questioned the “toodle” but the word is spelt correctly.

Subscription is quick and easy. You are given a new voicemail number, which can replace the old one on your speed dial. One’s first use of the system is naturally to try to trap it into mistakes. I caught it rendering Miranda as Meranda – it did at least know it was a proper name, however, for it gave it a capital letter. Happily for the Lynne Trusses among you, the “it’s” was correctly rendered, and I have found it spot-on when transliterating phrases like “I’ve sent a message to their centre where they’re collected. Its accuracy is great, it’s amazing.” It works out the difference between “they’re” and “their”, and “it’s” and “its”, and can distinguish by context such homophones as “sent a” and “centre”. It even got “He went out into the mist and missed” spot-on. Now that’s clever.

It might not immediately strike you as useful, but once you have experienced a day where you don’t have to dial in to listen to messages, but can just glance at them, you will never want to go back. After all, the option is still there for listening to the voice. You can trial it for free, and then texts cost between 20p and 30p, according to the package ( Brilliant and British.

Not everything brilliant is British, however. Ever been annoyed about desirable products that are available only in the US? I recommend which ships American goods around the globe. For us there’s VAT and import duty, plus the website’s handling surcharge, but the dollar still being relatively weak, transactions can work out cheaper as well as making available droolworthy gizmos and doodads that can’t be found here. I had a Chumby delivered to my door ( won’t deliver outside the US): it’s a soft, squashy Wi-Fi internet device that loads customisable widget or gadget style programs. Through it will cost about £120, plus whatever Revenue & Customs adds on. An American would pay the equivalent of £90 – but then, they haven’t got the wonder of SpinVox, so nah.

© Stephen Fry 2008

Acronym of the week

VAT Very Annoying Tax

This blog was posted in Guardian column

26 comments on “The sheer brilliance of Spinvox”

  1. ysabella says:

    Aw, that Chumby is cute. Like Minitel! Only even better! :^P

    It kind of pisses me off that they hype horoscopes as a selling point, though. That’s usually to market to women, which pisses me off even more.

  2. Thickey says:

    You may also want to try a service called Dial2Do, this works in the same sort of way. You call a number from your mobile (the system knows who you are from that number) and asks what you would like to do. Email, SMS or reminder.

    If you want to email someone (you must have previously added their email address into the Dial2Do contacts) then you say a name and say your messages a few minuets later an email gets sent.

    This is great if you think of something while on the train or don’t have access to email. Dial2Do are in beta at the moment but my application took about a week to get approved.

    I have nothing to do with these guys by the way :)

  3. Rick says:

    I do hope you will post a review of the Chumby… Does look rather cool !

  4. patnpm says:

    Are you sure this runs on voice recognition? The similar service in the States runs by sending the voice message to India where it is transcribed by a call centre worker. More accurate and cheaper than the digital alternative!

  5. gjhsu says:

    Ha! I had a good laugh over ‘Very Annoying Tax’

    It’s also extraordinary that an answering service would be able to discern ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ when a full three-quarters of the Internet cannot ;-)

  6. RubyCosmos says:

    I have a friend from Baltimore who moved to London a year ago and has been wailing (quite rightly) about his inability to buy American products. I’ve just sent the link along to him, and I expect he’ll be thrilled when he gets it. I tend not to have problems getting things shipped internationally, but I also only ever order from the UK or Japan, and almost never via eBay.

    As for the voicemail, I’m afraid I’d spend all my time and money sending myself messages just to play with it … so I’m actually thankful for my lack of it at the moment.

  7. alfie says:

    Spinvox is indeed an automated programmatic service, although I’m not certain perhaps it devolves to human intervention in certain circumstances.

    Spinvox as voicemail is fantastic, and Ill never use standard voicemail again. It’s also really good for voice blogging, the service is integrated with the blogging site (disclaimer: I am co-founder of this service) . You can call a Spinvox number in 5 different countries, UK included, and your message is converted to text and posted along with the original audio message to your moblog, which is rather neat. You don’t even need to be a site member to use it, if you’re in the UK just dial 01512666990, leave a message, and an anonymised account will be created for you, the location of which is then texted to you. Neat, I think. You can see a bunch of Spinvox to Moblog posts at

  8. Briantist says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Sorry for the pedantry, but if you look at the number one key on any mobile phone, digital or even the old analogue ones, they all have a little cassette symbol on them.

    There’s not a mobile phone in the world you don’t just press and hold the number one button to get to voicemail…

  9. uuaschbaer says:

    ^Thank you, Briantist, I never knew that.
    Transcription technology seems to have developed surprisingly much since Microsoft’s pressconference concerning Vista, not that that’s representable. Let’s anyhow hope it’s not a call centre. It’s an interesting technology, I find, like face recognition or any other that analyses things. Also the action shot of Stephen is quite interesting and dramatic, it’s been long since I’ve seen a cell phone with an antenna. I would have suspected that Stephen had made a fresher kill, to resume his metaphor made in ‘The Secret Life of a Manic-Depressive’. It might have been Steve Forrest’s idea to ensure that the viewer wouldn’t spend too much time contemplating what Stephen is actually doing. Oh, about the brilliant and British part, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a similar technology exists in Japan since the late 1500s compensating for Shakespeare.

  10. Tony Fisk says:

    Oh! Rejoice, my aching thumb!!

    I recall New Scientist had a look at voice recognition technology a few years ago. They tried reading Coleridge’s ‘Xanadu’, and received the following insights:

    ‘In salmon roe did mobile bond…’)

    Of course, that *was* a few years ago (and prior to the publication of ‘The Ode Less Travelled! ;-)

  11. dougwinter says:

    I’ve been using SpinVox since it was released, and it is indeed superb. Worth every penny.

    However, I’m certain it’s not just automated – I receive messages from people whose accents would defeat the best software I can imagine. It must be a mechanical turk of some form – the costs to pay someone to transcribe a single message would after all be very low.

    Whatever, it’s an excellent service.

  12. jamiedearnley says:

    I can confirm that Spinvox is not automated. That’s not to say that it’s isn’t a very good service indeed, but it isn’t an automated one. They have a data centre full of people transcribing the messages as they come in.

  13. Simon Long says:

    What I find distasteful about SpinVox is that they aren’t up front about the fact that it isn’t automated. Their “how does it work” page makes only an oblique reference to human involvement:

    “And even the smartest machines need a helping hand if they are to stay clever: help to understand and digest new words or phrases to ensure that he is converting what you mean to say.”

    The software simply cannot be good enough for the accuracy rates they deliver (I was a user for over a year, it’s a great service, no argument about that). They would need to have made a massive leap forward in voice recognition accuracy, and frankly I don’t think they’d just be converting voicemails if they had.

    Perhaps there is some automated processing (so a human operator has a starting point to work from) but their promotional material is still misleading – the reality is that every single one of your voicemails is listened to by an operator. I don’t think that means the service is any less useful, but I do think it’s dishonest of them to mislead their customers in this way. As has already been pointed out, there are companies who provide this service and are upfront about how they do it.

  14. I am overjoyed to have found out about both Spinvox and Chumby in one day so sincerely thank Stephen, but now I have been playing around with Spinvox for ages and working out how and when I can afford a Chumby, so college work has gone down the tubes. Again.

  15. Where's Mike? says:

    Yes, Stephen, SpinVox is a great service – but you’ve been fooled by some clever marketing speak from the company. Parts of it are automated – the part that sends your call to a human operator, for example – but much of it isn’t. In many ways, it’s the Wizard of Oz… or the talking computer from ‘Shooting Fish’.

  16. Selma says:

    Briantist, my mobile just has , and @ on the number 1 button. I have a Motorola W375. It might be that the emergency number here is 111 though, so encouraging people to play with the 1 on a phone is a bit silly. Still, there’s no one touch voicemail button on my phone anywhere else either.

    “There’s not a mobile phone in the world you don’t just press and hold the number one button to get to voicemail…”

    Does New Zealand count? I’m never sure :)

  17. Gwenzilla says:

    I have been enjoying posting to my blog via Spinvox. The memo service is pretty spiffy too– and free at the moment. If I’m out and about and I get an idea or need to remember something, I just ring the Spinvox memo number, and presto! I have an email message with my idea or reminder right there. Saves typing on the iPhone and can then be moved into OmniFocus or an idea file when I am back at my desk.

  18. Yeah I tried this a while back and loved it too but just couldn’t justify the addition to my bill. Would definietly have gone for it had it been cheaper – I was/am hoping that the service was going to be sold to the networks and then included.

    And, VAT actually stands for Various Additions to the Total.

  19. Gertrude Susanne says:

    Their a many few who think its hellishly difficult to get to grips with the English language and some of it´s intricacies (not me – honestly).
    Fortunately a thing of the past, what with SpinVox scriptoria full of diligent (trans)scribes – just when we thought the profession of scribes had lost most of its importance with the advent of the printing press (which reminds me of yet another excellent documentary presented/narrated by Mr Fry…) And what about a De Luxe Upgrade that returns illuminated SMS (SpinVox Master Scribe) text messages? ;o) Toodle-pip! GSK :o)

  20. Miche says:

    “You can trial it for free”

    Poor little noun, forced to do the work of a verb.

  21. zfiledh says:

    I wonder how well this would work when one of the callers has a strong accent…

  22. sammybaby says:

    True, we poor Yanks may not have our own Spinvox. On the other hand, there’s no on your side of the pond. A friend of mine in the UK said that Spinvox “isn’t as cool” as Jott, partially because Jott uses a single phone number followed by a speech recognition system to determine where your next missive is going. I’ve used it to add appointments to multiple Google Calendars, the “I Want Sandy” online assistant, and Twitter, the last of which generated some fairly hilarious transcription errors.

  23. AlfredoGarcia says:

    Mr Fry, like the rest of us, wants to believe that little Spinvox has some awesome (British) technology that has eluded all the world’s universities and major technology research organisations for thirty years. The answer of course lies in Spinvox’s patent ( “…it seems impossible to achieve high enough speech recognition accuracy for fully automatic conversion for more than a tiny fraction of utterances.” Their solution is “… using speech technology to support the agent.” The bulk of their patent discusses how various technologies can make it easier for human agents to transcribe your messages.
    That said, Spinvox is still a great product: Doulton and his chums at Spinvox should be applauded for their lateral thinking, entrepreneurialism, and PR!

  24. martlist says:

    Stephen, fantastic that you finally have a Chumby. Have had mine for a year and love it. Make sure you checkout the Squeezebox support. Any chance of a Stephen Fry channel on Chumby?

  25. avatarirl says:

    as another poster mentioned Jott and Dial2Do are extremely clever, the Dial2Do to Jahjah bridge is genius. No idea how they (or jahjah) make money out of it, but hey, thats what being a pioneer is all about… they’ll probably end up doing some kind of advertising tie in…. meh.

  26. Bens_teacher says:

    Lon-time fan, first-time caller.

    You have recommended . I would never ever have anything to do with them again. Ever.

    My experiences were negative. I have only bad things to say about them.

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