There has been a large number of major obstacles faced by the PC speech recognition and dictation industry, including price, accuracy, installation training time, ease of use and the quality of the microphone you speak into. Philips FreeSpeech 2000 is the closest yet to conquering all of these obstacles. FreeSpeech 2000 is competitive with the prices shared by its competitors from IBM, Lernout & Hauspie and Dragon. Gone are the £200-£300 price tags, a sure sign that the speech software market is hotting up. All, including FreeSpeech 2000 now offer continuous or natural speech recognition, so there is no need to pause artificially between each word. Again, all these packages are pretty accurate – once they have learned the way you speak and your vocabulary has been refined.
It’s in the learning process that FreeSpeech 2000 sets itself apart – you are only required to teach the speech engine your voice characteristics for a minimum of 15 minutes after installation. The others require at least an hour. As long as you speak consistently and clearly, speech recognition software is very good at recognising the words it knows and has refined through analysing your way of uttering them. Where FreeSpeech 2000 scores another brownie point is that it has an easy to use and convenient feature called a ConText tuner. This can be given a selection of existing documents which it will then analyse to identify words you have previously used but which it doesn’t have in its own dictionary. You can then train it to recognise the way you speak all or some of these words.
Once you’re on your way, the next critical factor is how well the software works with you to correct its mistakes and, in doing so, improve its recognition database. A good point is that a recording of what you said during the dictation of a complete document is stored temporarily, so when you come to correct a mistake, you can hear precisely what the computer heard. Very often it’s inconsistencies in your own speech which trip up the software. We found the edit/correction process to be fairly streamlined, but more stages are required than in IBM’s ViaVoice package. A text to speech synthesis option is also included. FreeSpeech 2000 also lets you use spoken commands to navigate application menus and Windows. It employs a “say what you see” system. We felt that Lernout & Hauspie’s VoiceXpress Pro navigation capabilities were more consistent than those of FreeSpeech 2000, but in practice it’s not bad at all.
So what kind of microphone do you get? Once again, Philips has an ace up its sleeve. The cheapest package comes with a good-quality Plantronics headset microphone. But for £45 extra you can buy a version which has a unique Philips-designed input device called a SpeechMike. This is a hand-held, thumb-operated trackball serial mouse with a built in microphone and a speaker. Left and right mouse buttons are situated on either side of the trackball and the left mouse is duplicated, trigger-style, underneath and is surprisingly comfortable in use. It’s also ideal for those who are left-handed.
A long curly lead is provided for the SpeechMike, so you can stand up and walk around a few paces while dictating. Unfortunately, at present only a serial interface version is available and it won’t work with a PS/2 mouse adapter. A USB version is on the way some time next year, however and if your PC already uses a PS/2 or USB mouse, it can work in tandem with these. The microphone proved to be very good quality and was not too sensitive to slight variations in distance from your mouth. An advanced version called the SpeechMike Pro is also available as a discrete product. This includes programmable buttons for controlling the record function in FreeSpeech 2000 as well as editing and other useful commands in a variety of applications.
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