Speech recognition

Regular readers will know that I have been using Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software for a couple of years to do my columns and other writings.

The version I had was the Recorder Edition v9.5, and it required you to record your dictation either onto a handheld recorder, or directly onto a computer, before it would transcribe it for you.

I had been hearing good things on the Internet about the improvements in Version 10 of the software and I was very keen to give it a try because it would allow me to dictate straight into a wordprocessing program, doing corrections as I went along, and cut out the need to record it first.

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Here be a Dragon

Today, I’ve got quite a few different things for you.

First off, I finally got my copy of Dragon Dictate working again after my recent hard drive accident. I had been using the program for a number of months when the accident happened and I had to do without it for a good couple of weeks.

I was actually quite surprised at how much I missed being able to dictate my various bits and pieces into the computer and have Dragon magically type them out for me. I suppose the true test of a piece of new technology is whether or not you miss it when it’s taken away from you.

I didn’t miss many of the programs that I use every day, like Open Office, but it was a very different story with Dragon. I suppose its proof that speech recognition is a technology whose time has come and that typing has suddenly become so ‘yesterday’.

The other day, while reading David Ziser’s photography blog, I saw that he too, had acquired Dragon Dictate and was having great success with it.

My only reservation with the version of Dragon that I’ve got at the moment is it came free with a dictaphone and the makers would clearly like me to upgrade to a new and better version. I reinstalled the program OK but it resolutely refused to let me import my precious speech files and made me go through the whole training process again.

That was certainly annoying but the value I find in the program is such that I will buy an upgraded version in the near future. And that brings me to my next point, which is that I’m going to make very sure that any new software I buy is fully compatible with Windows 7.

My tip for you today is, when buying anything in the PC line in the next couple of months, that you check very carefully to make sure it is compatible with Windows 7. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would not now buy a PC unless the vendor was prepared to guarantee a free upgrade to Windows 7 when it is released in October.

I haven’t heard anything official as yet but believe that Microsoft will at some point start offering a free upgrade to buyers of new systems. Without such a guarantee, I would personally choose to defer a PC purchase until after Windows 7 is launched.

Last week I talked about a free service called Alltop (alltop.com) which is a website which allows you to search for blogs and websites publishing information on any of a wide variety of subjects. By registering with Alltop, I explained, you can establish a page on which all your favourite websites and blogs are listed and which is updated when new material is added to any of the blogs or websites that you subscribe to.

Google offers a free feed reader service which does something similar and also allows you to subscribe to any website or blog, and read the latest content from any of those sites without leaving the Google feed reader page.

It does help to make life simpler by collecting all the stories you want to read together in one place, and the tool is quite easy to use, but it does have the drawback that you have to know about a particular site before you can subscribe to it.

I find I much prefer the AllTop service because it allows you to search by topic and provides you with a list of blogs and websites that pertain to that. You can then browse through the list and find interesting sites that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

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Voice computing has arrived

A couple of weeks ago I wrote I had bought a compact digital voice recorder for recording interviews and speeches.

I have found this very useful for many of the things that I do and, even better, the Olympus WS-110 DS came with a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9.5 speech recognition software which transcribes dictation into text files.

Eleven years ago, almost to the day, I was playing with speech recognition programs which were the grandfathers of this current version. Looking back on my articles written at the time, I thought the programs were pretty good stuff and I was convinced I’d keep using them.

I did do so for a couple of weeks but found that it was just too labour intensive to correct all the errors. I was hopeful that things would have improved since then and so I installed the package on my computer.

My version of NaturallySpeaking is known as the Recorder Version and needs you to record quite a sizeable chunk of text chosen from a number of different ones which are provided. Accuracy also improves as you use it and you make corrections to text it has transcribed.

Once I’d got the training out of the way, I eagerly plunged ahead to and began dictating that week’s column. I was extremely impressed with the high quality of the transcribed text even though it takes a bit of time to load and transcribe.

One drawback to the recorder edition is that you first have to make the recording and then load it into the program, before it can be transcribed. For this reason, I have been considering buying the full package which allows you to dictate directly into whatever program you happen to be working with.

Compatible programs for the full version include MS-Word, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and the program transcribes your speech, allowing you to make corrections as you go. You can also use voice commands for opening and saving files and navigating about on the Internet.

You can get NaturallySpeaking Preferred 10, for about R2800, and the Standard 10 version at about R1700. The Standard edition seems to do most things but it apparently won’t import files produced on a voice recorder, as the Preferred edition will.

Being in the media business, I was very interested to see if NaturallySpeaking could transcribe an interview but, unfortunately, it turns out that it can’t. It needs a good quality recording by the single voice that it has been trained to recognise, before it can operate.

NaturallySpeaking is very accurate and the major limitation to using it, in my opinion, is not how good the software is, but how well the user can learn to dictate. I’ve now been using the package for four weeks, and I’m still having a bit of difficulty in dictating accurately because you not only have to think of what you want to say next, but also remember to speak clearly and insert the punctuation.

Things are starting to come right and, although, I still get pretty tangled up, NaturallySpeaking doesn’t mind a silence while I’m thinking of what to say next. I often talk myself into a dead end and I have found that it’s easier and quicker just to say ‘new paragraph’ and start the paragraph again; the other can easily be deleted later.

Running words together is another source of inaccuracy because the program, no matter how clever, won’t know what you mean unless speak each word distinctly. You can pretty much talk as fast you like but each word needs to be distinct, which does take a bit of practice, but it does start coming right in time.

There are special versions of the program designed for the legal and medical professions and I guess that they would be very useful for those people. Details on those and the other versions on www.nuance.com. A comparison of the features in each version is available here.

I have now been NaturallySpeaking for the last four weeks for producing my weekly column, and other things, and I have to say that I’m really hooked on this method of working. I don’t think that I will be abandoning it any time soon, as I did 11 years ago.

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