Apple is growing the Cambridge research team focused on improving Siri speech recognition

The low-key entrance to Apple's current office in Kendall Square. (Photo by Scott Kirsner/ BetaBoston)
The low-key entrance to Apple's current office in Kendall Square. (Photo by Scott Kirsner/ BetaBoston)

On the eve of its next big product announcement, Apple is expanding its super-secret research office in Kendall Square. Several commercial realtors tell me that the Cupertino company has leased more than half a floor at One Broadway, an MIT-owned building that also houses Facebook’s small local team, several venture capital firms, and the Cambridge Innovation Center. The new office, about 13,000 square feet on one of the building’s upper floors, is a major expansion for Apple, which currently has a small team on the building’s fifth floor.

onebroadway-skThe Cambridge office primarily focuses on improving Apple’s Siri speech recognition technology. Several key team members previously worked for Nuance Communications, the Burlington-based tech company that supplies Apple with some of the software that powers Siri. They include Don McAllastar, Larry Gillick, and Gunnar Evermann. Apple has added other employees this year from BBN Technologies, the storied Cambridge R&D lab that is now part of Raytheon; Actifio, a data management startup; and Amazon, which opened its first local office in the same building, but now is based down the street, at 101 Main.

And Apple continues to hire other engineers here. A job posting for a Senior Speech R&D Engineer says the role “will be a part of a team that’s responsible for a wide variety of speech-related research and development activities, including acoustic modeling, language modeling and tools development. …Because you’ll be working closely with engineers from a number of other teams at Apple, you’ll need to be a team player who thrives in a fast paced environment with rapidly changing priorities.”

Apple hasn’t yet responded to a phone call and e-mail requesting comment.

The three realtors with whom I spoke all said they didn’t believe a build-out of the space had yet begun. Figuring about 200 square feet per employee, 13,000 square feet could mean Apple has room to hire about 65 people locally. Jones Lang LaSalle is representing Apple; Colliers International represents MIT, the landlord. Managing director Peter Bekarian of Jones Lang LaSalle said he couldn’t comment. This is Apple’s third office space in the same building; each one has been progressively larger.

“The universities here are definitely an attraction for Apple,” says Walt Tetschner, an analyst who follows the speech recognition field for Acton-based ASRNews. “But they seem to mainly be hiring from Nuance.” Tetschner says that raises the question of whether Apple is planning to sever or reduce its relationship with Nuance, a key supplier of speech recognition software since Siri’s launch in 2011. In June, Wired wrote about Apple’s efforts to build up its own muscles in speech recognition. (Nuance spokesman Richard Mack writes via e-mail that “we cannot comment on our partnership with Apple.”)

“The technology isn’t magic,” Tetschner says. “It’s more about the abilities of the people you have working on it.”

I broke the news that Apple had established a Cambridge office in January 2013; Xconomy wrote about the local personnel last July. In addition to Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have both been building speech recognition teams in Cambridge, just blocks from Apple’s growing office.

BetaBoston will have coverage of Apple’s latest product release extravaganza tomorrow.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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