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Is speech-recognition software for your PC really worth it?

September 5, 1998
Web posted at: 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT)

by James A. Martin

(IDG) -- Despite 11 years of living in California, I still have a Southern accent. My friends and colleagues kid me about it, and now, even my PC is having fun at my expense.

A few months ago, I installed Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking Preferred Edition, a "natural-language speech-recognition" program. In plain English this means you sit at your computer, hands by your side, and dictate entire sentences without pausing. You talk into a microphone headset plugged into your PC's sound card. As you speak, the words appear on screen.

Well, that's what is supposed to happen. The reality, at least for me, is that what I say sometimes appears on screen. But at other times, the software actually scoffs at my Southern speech patterns. And I ain't sure I appreciate it, neither.

For example, more than once, I've said "you are," only to have the software type "you all are." And recently, when I dictated the words "potting soil," I looked up at the screen and saw "a hot aim so loyal." Hmmmm.

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Some drawbacks

Admittedly, the current crop of speech-recognition software programs is vastly improved over its predecessors. Prior to the current generation, the programs were expensive (hundreds of dollars) and slow: Now, the leading software is easily affordable. Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking sells for $50 to $159, and you can speak, as the name suggests, naturally. Other notable programs are IBM's ViaVoice line ($50 to $149) and Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Xpress products ($50 to $100). Still, for most PC users, speech recognition isn't quite ready for prime time; the technology has a number of liabilities.

  • YOU'LL NEED A FAST COMPUTER: NaturallySpeaking, the least demanding application, requires a PC with a 133MHz Pentium, 32MB of memory and 60MB of free hard disk space.

  • YOU MAY NEED ANOTHER SOUND CARD: Not every program supports every sound card.

  • TRAINING TAKES TIME: For the best accuracy rate, you must train the software to recognize your voice. Initial training can take 30 to 90 minutes. Even then, it takes weeks before recognition accuracy improves. And those with accents or irregular speech patterns most likely won't get recognition accuracy rates beyond about 75 percent, even after months of use.

  • NO PROGRAM IS PURR FIT: Even if you don't have an accent, the software has some difficulty differentiating between such words as cents and sense and deciphering some proper names.

  • THE MICROPHONES ARE INFERIOR: Each program comes with a microphone headset. But the ones I've tested were uncomfortable to wear, and their poor sound-detection quality resulted in recognition mistakes. Consider spending $50 to $80 for a higher-quality headset.

  • YOU CAN STRAIN YOUR VOICE: If you use speech-recognition technology improperly, over time you can actually cause your voice to give out, which defeats the purpose of using the software.

So why buy one?

Despite all these caveats, I have to admit speech recognition does have benefits for some people. Hunt-and-peck typists, and those who spend long hours at a PC, for instance, may find it more comfortable at times to speak than to type.

I started using the software because, with my repetitive-strain injury (see " Is Your Computer Crippling You?", link below), I needed a way to stay productive. Even with frequent misinterpretations, the technology has enabled me to significantly reduce typing and mouse-clicking--and the resulting discomfort.

With that kind of payoff, I guess I can stand to have my accent mocked. But if I ever catch my PC writing "dawg" when I say "dog," all I can say is, "Look out."

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