Vocera: cool combination of database technology, 802.11 networking, and voice recognition

by Andy Oram

Related link: http://www.vocera.com/

Tamara Shelton,
Athene Consulting,
has alerted me to a cool and useful combination of database
technology, 802.11 networking, and voice recognition. Vocera assembles
these building blocks into a convenient and intuitive system that ties
people together tightly throughout an organization. The product is
particularly popular in hospitals, where speed and cooperation are
often critical and where (I imagine) the staff don't feel
self-conscious sporting a four-inch high black badge in addition to
their other professional garb.

Typical uses for Vocera include:

  • Calling people by name and being connected instantly to them, no
    matter where they are in the building.

  • Finding out where people are located.

  • Requesting someone by group ("Get a Rehab Therapist here") and being
    connected to the closest member of that group. This is a fairly simple
    database join between the group and the set of base station locations.

VP Brent Lang says, "Vocera is to the telephone what instant messaging
is to email." In other words, Vocera offers immediacy, presence, and
enough efficiency to encourage tiny interactions.

The Vocera system itself is an intriguing juxtaposition of elements
from different areas of computing:

  • MySQL database

  • Java application

  • Windows 2000 Server with 802.11 networking.

  • Nuance (http://www.nuance.com/) voice recognition system

Nuance is described by Lang as the leading voice recognition system in
the industry. Its Web site says, "The modular approach of the Nuance
architecture enables the separation of light client processing from
CPU-intensive server processing." This sounds like a good match for
the small Vocera badges.

While cell phones are banned in many hospitals because they could
interfere with medical devices, the 802.11 spectrum use poses no such

System administrators have to initialize their Vocera database so it
contains the device for each person, groups such as Rehab Therapists,
administrative groups (such as who can add and remove people), and
names that identify where base stations are located (so the system can
produce vocalizations like "Dr. Fon is in the cafeteria"). Lang
describes Vocera administration as quite easy; information for a
600-person site could be entered into a database in one or two days.

The administrative interfaces range from a CSV file to a Web graphic
display to voice commands. Thus, if you want to add somebody to a
group quickly and have the privileges to do so, you can do it by
speaking into your badge. Privacy is achieved by keeping up with
improved standards for wireless encryption (such as Wi-Fi Protected
Access) and through the careful enforcement of access rights.

Shelton, a product management consultant and evangelist for wireless
communications, writes, "VoIP will play a big role in the clinical
professions, especially in hospitals, emergency services and in
mobile-field clinics." She notes that nurses waste a lot of time
waiting on hold, or leaving messages to other medical personnel.

Vocera shows the power of planting familiar technologies into a
fertile combination. Substantial improvements in how organizations
work can sometimes be achieved without risking radically new and
untested technology. As one of Vocera's clients might say, removing
impediments from natural ways of operating may lead to a more
effective cure than forcing invasive changes.

What are some other nonintuitive uses of wireless?