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    Customer Advisory: Voice Recognition Software

    by Sister Wendy

    I leaned back in the overstuffed chair with the natty green upholstery. The chair swiveled slightly to the right so that I could get a better view out the window at the snowy eastern Connecticut scenery as it passed by. The old rail car creaked and rumbled as it slowly made its way down the tracks. I could see the steam that was billowing out of the engine two cars in front of me. Although it was winter and the windows were closed, I could smell that the firemen had recently stoked the engine with fresh, black coal. Just as I reached for my glass so that I could have another sip of what was left of my drink, I suddenly heard a faint chirping sound. As I listened more carefully I realized that this was not the noise of some melodious caged bird, unless this bird had been taught one of the works of Mozart. I swiveled back in my chair to see that the person next to me had pulled out her cell phone and was just beginning a conversation with someone in California.

    No, this is not the start of some cheesy science fiction short story (although I have read many that began in a similar way), this was an actual event that occurred a few months ago. I had gone with some friends to a festival in eastern Connecticut and when we got there we discovered that a steam train excursion was one of the features of the festival. I couldn't help enjoying the incongruity between very old and very new technology. While riding on this antique through the pastoral countryside I struck up a conversation with one of my friends about some of the features in her new cell phone that she had just used to hold a conversation with a brother on the west coast. From this starting point we talked about the latest features of the newest wireless devices. Soon we were off to various other geeky tangents.

    Eventually (though I'm not sure by what route) we found ourselves discussing voice recognition software. I must admit the concept was appealing to me. After all when ever I have tried to write something I've always found myself having to say the text aloud, then type what I have just said, and finally say it one more time just to see if it really made as much sense as I thought it should. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to cut out one or more of those steps?

    A few weeks later with renewed enthusiasm and little extra money burning a hole in my purse, I ventured forth to the software store ready to find the program that would surely change my life forever.

    On the recommendation of some friends who have perhaps even less knowledge than I do about computers, I looked most carefully at IBM's ViaVoice. There were two versions, the standard and the advanced. They were about $40 and $60 respectively. Both versions came with a headset microphone. I surmised that the cost of the headset was about $20 so the software couldn't be all that expensive. I looked carefully at both boxes - the Advanced Edition was clearly more expensive but I couldn't figure out exactly why. There was no substantial difference in what was said on either box. The boxes were definitely different colors and the "advanced" was $20 more, and it was "advanced" after all. It was clearly the better choice.

    So I got my new toy home and installed it. The first thing you have to do with it is train it to understand the way you speak. You have to read stories to it so that it begins to learn how you pronounce certain words. There was something strangely fun about reading to a computer and knowing that it was trying to learn something from what you were reading. Then, of course, there is the "Star Trek" factor - just speaking a command will often make it happen (like saying "print" will actually send the document I'm working on to the printer).

    That isn't to say, however, that there still aren't some flaws in this program. I am using the program right now to type this article, and when I typed the last line of the previous paragraph I inadvertently said the word that is spelled p-r-i-n-t and immediately Microsoft Word decided I was asking for hard copy. So you can see that when a word comes up in text that may also be a command you can get yourself in a little trouble. You're supposed to pause before uttering commands, and the program should recognize them as such. But who doesn't talk like William Shatner at least once in awhile? It's the pauses that will get you into trouble. If, for example, you want to describe something out your window but think for a moment between "your" and "window" suddenly you're staring at a pull down menu you didn't want (as I am right now).

    And then of course, the program is still learning and until it is better educated it will continue making various mistakes. Furthermore, if I get tired and my vocal inflexion begins to change, the program has a harder time understanding me and it begins to seems like it's getting a little stupid, or I am beginning to say some very bizarre things.

    Like now for example, I'm not speaking the same way I did when I started writing. So the program is having a harder time keeping up with trying to understand what I want it to type. To make this problem a bit clearer, I will no longer correct what the program types into Word from this point on. I will just keep going and hope that it makes some kind of sense somehow.

    Tallinn all, despite its flaws were I find it to be one route to the relatively enjoyable program to use. Once a while of course the program makes an educated guess a cat that it thinks you want to say. Sometimes it's right and sometimes it's wildly wrong. When it is wrong, you could use a special utility to teach and what the right word is to go with the sound made. I would describe that but doing so would actually make it happen and I really don't want to do that now. Another inevitable problem is that the microphone sometimes picks things up like when I scratch my nose and pull the microphone and it thinks that the noise is some sort of word such as this: Pope.
    And when you see something like the Platte appear just because you scratch sure those care a slate, you really have to wonder just what the hell thises. But as I said we come up with, I am generally satisfied with this program and it is much smarter than it used to pay. When perhaps the most annoying experience I ever had with it though was once when I was just beginning to use it and the phone rang. Where there is a command to simply tell all the microphone to consult ought. But instead of turning itself off, it typed in the words instead read and I tried to get to the phone will saying many different silly things and less of them ended up in my document.
    What that made me feel very foolish. And there is nothing worse than being embarrassed by software. But what I set? It takes time to get used to essentially a noise free environment and certainly aboon to to the Ayatollah SFO. And is there anyone pokeweeds meandered? I think not!

    Sister Wendy

    *

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