it's time to rethink the way we input text into our computers. All we need is a microphone and a willingness to try something different.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

Speech recognition finally comes of age

May 24, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2009, The Post-Standard

   Computers are instruments of writing. It seems odd, nearly three decades after the introduction of the first modern computer, that most of us are still writing using a device invented 150 years ago -- the keyboard.
   Keyboards are error-prone, can cause wrist injuries and limit the size of our computers. We use laptop computers the size of three-ring binders not because we need a large display -- screens the size of an index card are perfectly readable for most of us -- but because our portable computers need keyboards.
   It's time to rethink the way we input text into our computers. All we need is a microphone -- most laptops haven them built in -- and a willingness to try something different.
   I know what you're thinking -- voice recognition software has been around a long time and it doesn't work very well. You end up wasting half your time fixing mistakes. Isn't this how we've all thought of voice recognition software?
   I've got good news. Those days are over. For the last few weeks I've been using two voice recognition products, one for Windows and one for Macs. They both work incredibly well. They both recognize what I'm saying no matter how fast I speak. And it took only a few minutes of training when I installed the software for the programs to recognize my speech.
   The Windows software is the well-known Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I installed it first and got used to its menus and ease of operation before I installed the Mac software, MacSpeech Dictate. It turns out that MacSpeech uses software code based on the Dragon software, so it not only works much the same way, it just plain works very well.
   I could hardly contain my surprise at how adept these programs are at picking up the correct words no matter how quickly I spoke. I've used voice recognition software in the past and found it very frustrating because of all the mistakes it made on the screen. But both of these programs can take dictation with almost perfect results.
   The "Standard" version of Dragon discounts for less than $100. I found it for $46.99 on Amazon.com. For more information, go to http://nuance.com. MacSpeech Dictate is more expensive, selling on Amazon for about $160. The company's Web site is www.macspeech.com.
   If you've ever dictated, you'll find either one of these programs easy to use because you can use the standard methods of designating mistakes (just say "scratch this" and the last word goes away) or adding punctuation (saying "period" or "full stop" provides a period). There are many other such command phrases.
   The software in both cases is smart enough to put periods at the end of sentences and to add a space after all punctuation. It also knows that it has to capitalize the beginning of sentences. You can simply speak as you naturally would and your words will appear on the screen, in your word processor, in your e-mail software's window or in practically any standard software.
   You can also use both of these programs to control your menus by speaking the menu command. You can create new documents, save current ones and edit ones you've already created. Both programs work with more than just word processors and e-mail; I was able to add numbers to an Excel spreadsheet, open and navigate Web pages and control my music software easily.
   Speech recognition is fun, but the real test of such software comes when you use it for things you simply have to do. That's why I dictated this entire column using Dragon on my tiny netbook computer.
   I plan to keep using this method week after week. Like many of you, I suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, and I''m looking forward to giving my wrists a break.