There’s a classic moment in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Mr Scott tries to control a computer by speaking to it. No, he’s told, you have to use the mouse. So he grabs the mouse with a phoney Scottish harrumph and speaks into that instead. Naturally it doesn’t work. And having witnessed the birth of real speech recognition software when, frankly, it also didn’t work, we’re with Scotty. What’s the point?
Rather a lot, as it turns out. Dragon Dictate comes with a reputation for cleverness and accuracy that’s impressive and this – the first version for the Apple Mac – builds on that. Setting up the supplied Plantronics mic and USB connector is straightforward, though not labelling them clearly is a mistake since the Mac can’t detect the right headset automatically; it’s only a minor headache though.
What’s more impressive is the lack of time spent training the system. We remember laborious hours reading dreary documents while ancient PC programs supposedly learned the nuances of our spoken voice only to ignore them when the time came to actually do some work. Here it’s five minutes or less and the resulting voice recognition is scarily accurate. During the course of this review, for example, it only coughed twice – once replacing ‘stories’ with ‘storehouse’ and once stumbling over a ‘we’d’ – which was probably our fault anyway.
There are two main modes – Dictation and Command – which allow you to navigate round the Mac and enter text and other data. For example, to start this review we said ‘Command Mode’ and then ‘Open Writeroom’, then ‘Dictation Mode’ and then started speaking. Many of the other commands are equally intuitive: for example, when you want to move on to the next line you simply say ‘new line’ and then the program automatically inserts a carriage return; elsewhere ‘scratch word’ will delete the previous word and ‘go to end’ will take you to the end of the document.
You have to learn to speak naturally rather than pausing all over the place, and – we can’t stress this enough – the accuracy of the program is so impressive that you can genuinely speak at an ordinary pace in your day-to-day conversational tone and get close-to-perfect results. Elsewhere there’s also a Spelling mode (which also handles punctuation and supports some commands) and Sleep mode where the program ignores everything you say apart from ‘Wake Up’ or ‘Turn the microphone on’.
Clearly this is an important product for anyone who has trouble using a computer keyboard or mouse, but there are other applications too. As slaves to the keyboard for nearly 30 years we’ve grown accustomed to creating as we type, composing sentences and paragraphs, constructing arguments, editing and backtracking on-the-fly, but this is an entirely new way to create copy and frame arguments that’s rather liberating.
And, of course, not everyone is a decent touch typist, so if you find yourself with a number of documents (or anything else) that you need to copy onto the computer, it’s a lot easier to read them out then it is for a hunt-and-peck typist to type them in.
By preference, and because we are relative newcomers to all this, we’d probably prefer to stick to the mouse and keyboard for editing our documents and navigating around the desktop, opening and closing programs, working with files and folders and so on, but for copy creation this is a blast. And after we’ve become more familiar with the commands, who knows? Whoop dee do. Yes, it even recognised that.
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