The machine had been delivered two days ago on her first adult birthday. She had said, "But father, everybody - just everybody in the class who has the slightest pretensions to being anybody has one. Nobody but some old drips would use hand machines - "

The salesman had said, "There is no other model as compact on the one hand and as adaptable on the other. It will spell and punctuate correctly according to the sense of the sentence. Naturally, it is a great aid to education since it encourages the user to employ careful enunciation and breathing in order to make sure of the correct spelling, to say nothing of demanding a proper and elegant delivery for correct punctuation."

Even then her father had tried to get one geared for type-print as if she were some dried-up, old-maid teacher. But when it was delivered, it was the model she wanted - obtained perhaps with a little more wail and sniffle than quite went with the adulthood of fourteen - and copy was turned out in a charming and entirely feminine handwriting, with the most beautifully graceful capitals anyone ever saw. Even the phrase, "Oh, golly." somehow breathed glamour when the Transcriber was done with it.

--Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation - 1953



Here at AnandTech, we do our best to cover the topics that will interest our readers. Naturally, some topics are of interest to the vast majority of readers, while others target a more limited audience. At first glance, this article falls squarely into the latter category. However, when we think about where computers started and where they are now, and then try to extrapolate that and determine where they are heading in the future, certainly the User Interface has to play a substantial part in making computers easier to use for a larger portion of the population. Manual typewriters gave way to keyboards; text interfaces have been replaced by GUIs (mostly); and we have mice, trackballs, touchpads, and WYSIWYG interfaces now. Unfortunately, we have yet to realize the vision of Isaac Asimov and other science fiction writers where computers can fully understand human speech.

Why does any of this really matter? I mean, we're all basically familiar with using keyboards and mice, and they seem to get the job done quite well. Certainly, it's difficult to imagine speech recognition becoming the preferred way of playing games. (Well, some types of games at least.) There are also people in the world that can type at 140 wpm or faster -- wouldn't they just be slowed down by trying to dictate to the computer instead of typing?

There are plenty of seemingly valid concerns, and change can be a difficult process. However, think back for a moment to the first time you saw Microsoft's new wheel mouse. I don't know how other people reacted, but the first time I saw one I thought it was the stupidest gimmick I had ever seen. I already had a three button mouse, and while the right mouse button was generally useful, the middle mouse button served little purpose. How could turning the middle mouse button into a wheel possibly make anything better? Fast forward to today, and it irritates me to no end if I have to use a mouse that doesn't have a wheel. In fact, when I finally tried out the wheel mouse, it only took about two hours of use before I was hooked. I've heard the same thing from many other people. In other words, just because something is different or you haven't tried it before, don't assume that it's worthless.

There are a couple areas in which speech recognition can be extremely useful. For one, there are handicapped people that don't have proper control over their arms and hands, and yet they can speak easily. Given how pervasive computers have become in everyday life, flat out denying access to certain people would be unconscionable. Many businesses are finding speech recognition to be useful as well -- or more appropriately, voice recognition. (The difference between speech recognition and voice recognition is that voice recognition generally only has to deal with a limited vocabulary.) As an example, warehousing job functions only require a relatively small vocabulary of around 400 words, and allowing a computer system to interface with the user via earphones and a microphone can free up the hands to do other things. The end result is increased productivity and reduced errors, which in turn yields better profitability.

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  • JarredWalton - Sunday, April 23, 2006 - link

    Isn't there some comedy routine by an older gentleman that does the whole "verbalize punctuation" shtick? One of the things I might look at in the follow-up article is showing how Dragon does when turning on automatic punctuation. It will attempt to insert periods, commas, and question marks (at least, I think it does question marks) depending on how you speak the text. Obviously, that means you have to be a lot more careful when reading/dictating.

    I found it more useful to manually dictate my punctuation, since on frequent occasions I will pause midsentence to try and think what I want to say -- or because of some interruption. Basically, as a writer, punctuation is something that I take pretty seriously. DNS does pretty well with getting it right, but it also makes plenty of mistakes.
    Reply
  • Admiral Ackbar - Monday, April 24, 2006 - link

    Victor Borge. Its called phonetic punctuation. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen (I had the privelege of seeing him not long before he died).

    Actually though, it could work and its quicker than actually saying the word period or question mark.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, April 25, 2006 - link

    I bet it takes a hell of a lot of practice, too! Especially if you want to speak at a reasonable clip. I remember laughing my butt off at Victor Borge's routine quite a few years ago. On the bright side, more people might learn how to use proper punctuation!

    You also have to worry about the speech recognition software starting to recognize random noises (like a cough) as actual dictation. That happens already, but usually Dragon is smart enough to realize that my cough was merely a loud noise. Sometimes I get the random "the" from it, though.
    Reply
  • Tujan - Saturday, April 22, 2006 - link

    I would be interested in knowing exactly what the program does. Something more acknowledged towards its features,interaction ect. Rather than a somewhat comparison between two programs - a somewhat benchmark.

    For example - you mention command mode. But dont get any further involved with what that encapsulates. That alone,has its limitations Im sure. Yet Im am also sure that many might want to know exactly what it is about. For example Start-My Documents-FolderName-Open...and so on. Is this how it works ? Or something like the HTPC scenario in wich you Query your favorite TV show - "Channel-channel name",..Or 'program name-file name-open'' . For the HTPC.

    Everybody should know what a vaccuum cleaner can do for you. Ya know. But what can you do for your vacuum cleaner.

    I imagine (note imagine'yes),given speech recognistion what well enough along,you could utilize a command line interface,and programmers would be able to program more quickly,and easily. Other than having your vacuum cleaner attack you ya know,you could do something like 'Dir - listing of directories. Or MD - make directories.

    Dont know any programming code,so anything other than exampling DOS command line.STill you could see what Im getting at. Program your HTML for example.

    But within the Windows environment,you could ask how well the program takes commands,and multitasks. Since you could use the wave file to do this. and so on.

    Im just curious. Dont see a lot of interesting software reviews dealing with the nuts and bolts of the application itself lately.

    Try a ram drive with that - take the chains off maybe ?
    Reply
  • Ardemus - Friday, April 21, 2006 - link

    1) How was the software trained? Were you using "normal" or "dictation" speech paterns?

    2) Dragon may do much better with a wav over a real time system because it can read ahead and analyze the whole file.

    3) Does dragon give up resources when other applications ask for them?

    4) What sort of errors were made? How many errors are there after a spell and gramar check in MS word?

    5) Can you correct the errors in each program and scan again, to measure the improvement?

    6) I've heard that you can overstress and damage your vocal cords through speech recognition (RSI of the voice). Have you researched that?

    7) How often did both packages make the same mistakes? If you ran it through both packages in real time minimal mode, then DNS in several different speeds, could you run an algorythm to on the different results to increase accuracy?

    Nick Burger
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 21, 2006 - link

    1 -- Both were trained in the same manner, basically me speaking the text, but doing my best to enunciate words a little better than I might do in the real world. Besides, good fiction is a useful skill to have, particularly if you're speaking with business people.

    2 -- That's entirely possible. One of the odd things is that the accuracy shown in my dictation benchmarks doesn't seem to correspond with my own personal experience of trying to use the software. It may simply be the way that I speak when trying to write articles, but I find that Microsoft is far worse in normal use. That's not a very scientific method, but I can't emphasize enough how much more difficult I find Microsoft's speech interface is to use.

    3 -- Dragon runs as a normal priority process, and when you're dictating with the accuracy set to "medium" it uses 20 to 50% of the processor time (on a single core Athlon 64 2.4 GHz). The memory footprint is pretty large, at about 150 to 200 MB. As far as I can tell, it will not use more than 200 MB -- during testing, I watched RAM usage on the "maximum accuracy" configuration, because I was curious to see if the switch from 1 GB on my old system to 2 GB on my new system would help. It did not. (the total size of my database/voice files is currently just over 300 MB.)

    I also noticed on my old system that Dragon requires a fair amount of hard disk access. I was copying several gigabytes of data from one computer to another computer (over gigabit ethernet) and Dragon's responsiveness dropped way off. It was still accurate, but rather than speaking and seeing the text a second or so later, there was a four or five second pause for most sentences.

    4 -- I included a link to a zip file in the article for anyone interested in looking at specific errors. The text files were compared using WinDiff, and I manually counted errors. (I was somewhat lenient, in that I allowed "speech-recognition" to match "speech recognition" -- stuff like that.)

    5 -- Dragon has definitely been "trained" on the document. Microsoft seems to do its own thing in terms of training, so all I could do is make sure that all of the words used were known by the speech engine. When you make an error using Microsoft's tool, as far as I know you have to correct with the keyboard. You can't just tell it to select the misinterpreted words and provide the correct interpretation. Perhaps it's possible to switch to command mode, tell the application to select something, then switch to dictation mode and give the correct spelling... at that point, you're far better off using the mouse and keyboard, and if you can't use those then you're much better off using Dragon's interface.

    6 -- Ithet's entirely possible, and laryngitis certainly doesn't help speech recognition at all. You definitely don't want to get in the habit of speaking really loudly, so it's best to train the software in a somewhat subdued voice (in my opinion). I would say the most important thing is to do everything in moderation; sitting at a computer dictating for 12 hours a day is going to be just as harmful in the long run as sitting at a computer typing 12 hours a day.
    Reply
  • bobsmith1492 - Saturday, April 22, 2006 - link

    "Besides, good fiction is a good skill to have when... "

    :P Kind of like Isaac Asimov?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, April 22, 2006 - link

    See what I get for not proofing carefully? LOL - that's the type of error I get most of the time. "A" for "the" is another common one. Reply
  • Gioron - Friday, April 21, 2006 - link

    My brother swears by DNS, but using it myself and watching him use it I just can't stand going that slow. I've gotten to the point where I can type much faster than the speach recognition can handle it, and stopping to correct it just slows things down to a painful level. Of course, I'd probably have to learn to live with it if my wrists started bothering me, but until then...

    And then there's this bash.org quote:
    http://www.bash.org/?34776">http://www.bash.org/?34776
    <www666> this is so cool I'm typing with Dragon NaturallySpeaking in mIrc
    <www666> no more typing
    <LameLLama> www: try "thlash exit"
    *** www666 has quit IRC (Leaving)
    *** www666 (baroca@spc-isp-ham-uas-05-11.sprint.ca) has joined #visualbasic
    <www666> Hugh Masters
    <www666> you basterdes
    Reply
  • hans007 - Friday, April 21, 2006 - link

    i used speech recognition with office xp when it came out. that was awful.

    my acura navigation has speech recognition which is also not well, that useful, its still easier to use buttons.


    i honestly think it will never be better than just buttons.
    Reply

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