Computers, tablets, and smartphones are the unchallenged gatekeepers to the Internet in most of the world today. But not everywhere. Internet service is costly in many regions, and in some of those places, there's an even larger obstacle to access: The illiterate can't participate.
That might change, of course, if the Internet was communicated by speech. One Mexico City-based advertising agency says this can be done by creating a cheap, "verbal" Internet that could be accessed on any basic cell phone, landline, or pay-phone. The creatives' plan is to launch one this year.
Flock, a digital ad agency and innovation consultancy that's worked for brands like Nike and a number of telecommunications companies, has launched a Kickstarter for its self-funded Verbal project. It aims to raise $94,000 in order to push voice-driven Internet into the hands of rural populations without Internet access. Verbal’s pilot doesn’t quite comprise the entire web (not yet, anyway), but it does allow users to browse Wikipedia entries, as well as compose, send, and listen to email.
For the 4.3 billion people living without the Internet by computer or smartphone, a voice-driven Internet by phone could mean keeping in touch more regularly with a loved one abroad or researching in the absence of a library.
"For a while now we’ve been trying to come up with ideas that don’t necessarily respond to clients’ needs, but that try to tackle a real issue," explains Jorge Camacho, Flock’s director of innovation. "So, coming from that perspective, and coming from the work we’ve done for some telecom companies, we’re quite aware of the issue of digital divide."
Flock is pursuing research with communities in and around Mexico City, gathering feedback from teachers and families in rural areas. If a financially constrained, illiterate mother wanted to reach a child living abroad, for example, all she would have to do is call a local Verbal number, which would then present her with a menu taking her to an automated, dictated email service. Flock uses cloud computing and voice recognition software to connect the user to the agency’s servers, where Verbal then functions like an ear-and-voice-driven Internet.
An expanded menu of sophisticated apps could also entice those with regular Internet access. Verbal might come in handy to the visually impaired, explains Camacho, or transcribe tweets you dictate by voice.
The agency is also negotiating terms with local telecom companies to drum up Verbal plans that would be cheaper than buying a smartphone and paying for cellular data. "The ideal [option] would be to enter into public-private partnerships that would make Verbal free for the users. And if that is not the case, we think we can do setups that will still make Verbal the most affordable way to get this set of Internet services," Camacho said.
Still, getting difficult-to-reach communities to use such a foreign tool could be a challenge, though Camacho hopes telecommunications carriers will note Verbal as an option to most regular phone invoices. The agency also says that it has no plans to derive profit from its Verbal work and doesn't plan on including ads.
"First of all, we’re an advertising agency, but we think that people’s problems are a lot bigger than brands’ problems. So our point of view is that an advertising agency shouldn’t just be an advertising campaign," explained Daniel Granatta, who works on the Verbal project. "That’s why we’re launching this campaign on Kickstarter rather than just looking for investors under the radar. We are also trying to make a statement for the industry that advertising agencies should be worried about people, not only about brands."