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ISSUE 533: The high tech office- Jan 11 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Talking to your computer is possible and worthwhile

Like Doctor Doolittle's ability to talk to animals, computer-based dictation software remains an attractive promise. Think of all the middle- and upper-level executives who never learned to type (er, excuse me, keyboard), secure in the knowledge that they would always have clerical support.

And then there are a large number of users for whom typing simply isn't practical, whether because of a physical handicap or because they need to be standing or holding something while they work.

When this column first looked at voice dictation software in 1994, a typical computer was a 486 with 8 megs of RAM running windows 3.1. Products from that era, such as IBM's VoiceType Dictation, were hobbled by the need to add a hardware card to the computer and by the need for the user to learn so-called discrete speech -- dictating with a noticeable pause between each word... something... like... this. Add in a cost of $1,500 or so and you were guaranteed a product with a limited market.

More powerful computers have resulted in dictation products that don't need any hardware add-ins and permit more normal continuous speech. As re-
quired training time and price have dropped, they are approaching being an affordable, practical solution for many users.

I spent some time with the latest generation of IBM's ViaVoice -- the Millennium Edition. Along with Dragon Systems' Naturally Speaking, and Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Xpress, IBM has pioneered this product category.

New in ViaVoice Web Millennium and Pro Millennium versions is Web browser support, which allows users to talk directly to their Microsoft, Netscape or AOL browsers, move between links on a page or follow a link to a new page. A collection of Wizards simplify setup and offer hints to improve accuracy. Reminiscent of Microsoft Office's talking paperclip Office Assistant, ViaVoice's Woodrow lurks about, waiting for a chance to read e-mail back or otherwise be of assistance.

Common tasks have been made simpler. Users, for example, can quickly correct misunderstood words with the keyboard, the mouse or verbally. The program can save a customized vocabulary of up to two million words -- making it more usable than ever in specialized fields such as the law, medicine or engineering. Voice macros or shortcuts can be created for frequently used words, phrases or even whole paragraphs.

ViaVoice comes in three flavours: a Standard ($90) version offers a basic interface for dictating documents and reading text back to the user. The Web ($120) edition adds support for browsers, e-mail and Internet chat. (Yes, now you can really chat in a chat service.) The $270 Pro version adds support for standard text-based applications -- users can speak directly to the word processor of their choice. Microsoft Office applications such as Word, Excel and Outlook are all supported. As well, the Pro version includes specialized vocabularies for business, finance and computer terminology, and can be used to navigate the standard Windows desktop. Legal and medical vocabularies can be purchased. All work right out of the box, though users can expect better results if they work through a 15-minute training session, reading a story to the computer, allowing it to get used to the nuances of their voice. The program can support multiple users, but don't expect to be able to plunk your notebook with a microphone down in the middle of a table and have it take down everything that's being said by multiple speakers in a meeting.

The minimum hardware needed is an MMX Pentium 166 with 48 MB of RAM, but IBM suggests at least a Pentium II processor and 64 MB of RAM to work in a word processor such as Microsoft Word. A Macintosh version has been recently released, ending a long drought of such products for the Mac. IBM has also announced plans to port the technology to the Linux environ
ment. More information and a down-
loadable demo are available from www.ibm.com/software/speech/.

A version of ViaVoice is integrated into some versions of IBM's Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition, al-
lowing dication directly into its WordPro word processor and 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Similarly, Corel has built Dragon System's voice dictation technology into some versions of its Word Perfect office suite. Currently, Microsoft has not packaged voice dictation into any of its Office product line, though ViaVoice Pro integrates nicely into that product.

Expect to see the technology ap-
pearing more and more behind the scenes -- in phone-based menu ordering systems, for example.

Registered attendees at next week's Comdex Canada West 2000 conference may be interested in a session entitled "Voice Recognition--An Office Solution Ready for Your Business?" on Wednesday, January 19, from 2 - 3:15 pm at the Vancouver Trade & Exhibition Centre. *

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan