makes talking to computers easier than ever
Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business
October 31-November 6, 2006; issue 888
High Tech Office
I first tried to get my computer to take dictation back in 1995.
IBM’s recently-released VoiceType Dictation software came on a
cumbersome 16 floppy diskettes, required 12 megabytes of memory, a
then-hefty 62 megs of hard drive space, and shipped with a 400-page
printed manual. It required users to crack open their computer case to
install a special add-in card; the 486-based computers of the era
weren’t powerful enough to run the software on their own.
After all that, you needed to spend time training the software to
understand your voice. And the software needed to train you. In order
for it to work, you had to speak – like – this – with
– a – noticeable – pause – between – each
Did I mention that it cost $1,500?
Over time, computers got more powerful. Soon, the add-in card was no
longer needed. And after training, users could speak with a more
natural flow to produce text that had some relation to what they meant
to say. By 2002, products such as IBM’s ViaVoice or Dragon
Natural Systems were doing a pretty good job with about 30 minutes of
training. And the cost was down to about $300.
The recent release of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 (Windows-only: www.nuance.com
) ups the ante for
computer voice dictation software.
The promise – you don’t have to train it. No more need to
sit at your computer reading a piece of prose so that the software can
adjust to your personal accent and vocal mannerisms. Just install, plug
in a microphone and away you go.
Right out of the box, it worked quite well for me, making far fewer
errors taking dictation than I would have made typing. A rough
estimate: 99 per cent accurate – about 10 mistakes per 1,000
words. As you correct its errors (which you can do entirely by voice)
it learns from its mistakes, so it gets better than that with time and
Part of the reason for the program’s accurate word recognition is
that it doesn’t just listen. It also looks at words in context,
enabling it to generally figure out whether you meant
“there,” “their” or “they’re”
or “two,” “to” or “too.” And during
installation, it scans your documents folder, training itself from your
Microsoft is promising limited dictation abilities built into next
year’s Vista version, but Dragon offers much more now. The
English language version can work with a range of accents, including
British, South African, South Asian and Australian. It’s also
available for a number of other languages, and there are versions with
specialized medical and legal vocabularies.
Both the US$99 (CDN$140) standard and CDN$200 preferred editions ship
reasonable quality headset and promise identical accuracy. The
preferred edition adds the ability to dictate away from your computer
into a pocket voice recorder for later transcription. As well, the
preferred edition lets you create your own customized set of voice
macros. You could set the software to respond to the phrase
“insert address” by typing your return address into a
letter, for instance.
If you’ve got the previous version of Dragon, you probably
don’t need to upgrade – you’ve already got that one
trained to a high level of accuracy. But if you’ve never used
voice dictation software, with Dragon NaturalSpeaking 9.0 you can stop
typing and just talk to your computer.
(If you want more from voice recognition software, Vancouver-based
Speakeasy Solutions – www.speakeasysolutions.com
– offers consultation, training, customization, and support).