Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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Techie: The sound of your voice

Recognition technology getting better, but not perfect yet

By John ďjaQĒ Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com 

You talk to your computer already. Admit it. We canít print what you probably yell at it, but you know what youíve said.

Wouldnít it be great if your computer understood you?

Perfect voice recognition has been the holy grail of software development for decades. Dozens of applications, not to mention hardware devices like GPS units and light controllers, will recognize a small set of commands from just about any person. Download the Opera Web browser (www.opera.com) to get a free taste of software that responds to your decrees.

The trickier side of voice recognition comes not in responding to a small list of designated words, but in correctly interpreting the bizarre sounds coming out of our primitive, fleshy mouths and transcribing those words into text. Even top-of-the-line software claims only a 99 percent accuracy rate.

Ninety-nine percent sounds pretty good, you say? I suppose it does. But if you consider your really big documents ó say, a novel, at a conservative 50,000 words ó youíre dealing with 500 errors right there. If itís a fantasy novel with words like Glyllenphage or ponyrabbit, forget it.

You donít write novels? Okay. Make it about one error every other paragraph. And that error is hidden in some embarrassing homophone or some word you never even knew existed.

Not to mention that the 99 percent accuracy rate is only achieved after youíve configured the software to your specifications and trained it to recognize your voice. Other users will need to create their own profiles so the software can deal with their unique inflections, accents and oddities.

And donít even think about trying voice recognition in a crowded office. Not because your computer will pick up background chatter ó a decent headset microphone will have a narrow enough focus to only listen to you. The real problem is you yammering away all the live-long day while your officemates are trying to get work done. Or surf porn. Whatever.

All that aside, voice recognition does have its place. You can dictate informal correspondence or notes where you donít mind a few errors. Transcribing a speech or interview youíve recorded is a heck of a lot easier, as long as youíre meticulous about combing back through it and removing mistakes. Above all, itís great if youíre hopped up on caffeine and have to get words out of your head but canít sit still to type.

The current giant in the consumer voice recognition business is Dragon NaturallySpeaking (www.nuance.com). Itís a very mature product thatís in version 8 at the moment and has absorbed IBMís ViaVoice product. It comes in several editions: different dictionaries come with the medical and legal editions, so arcane terminology is still recognized. You can even build voice recognition into your own applications with their Software Development Kit (SDK). They claim punctuation is automatically inserted, but Iíd add that to your list of things to check over once youíre finished talking.

Other software is sparse, but includes Wave to Text and Dictation 2005 (www.research-lab.com). Both offer a three-day trial version for download, but boast only 80 percent accuracy. Their own screenshot shows the text ďThis is testing one to three computer,Ē which, only guessing at the speakerís intentions, isnít encouraging.