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HomeGearSoftware Review: Dragon Voice Recognition

Software Review: Dragon Voice Recognition

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In high school, one of my smartest moves was taking a typing class. I got a lot of dates, and I learned to type. Plus it was a huge help getting through the ensuing years.Now a freak accident (are there other kinds?) has left my right hand wrapped in plaster. With the added insult of swollen fingers poking out one end. Despite work and deadlines, my best typing hand is good for nothing but hailing cabs.A dictation program is my only hope. You know the kind; you talk and it transcribes everything you’ve said. I tried them long ago, speaking as if to a dull, foreign child, watching “now is the time for all good men” rendered into “nosey tide feral garment.”I’m assured that, like my typing skills and the ’95 Cabernet I’ve been saving, voice recognition software has vastly improved with age. I’m game for the software. The wine, however, stays on the shelf.Dragon NaturallySpeaking (v9 from Nuance) ranges from Basic ($100) to Preferred ($149 and probably your best buy) to Professional ($900) with specialized medical and legal vocabularies available, each dollar buying more proficient hearing, better transcribing and quicker learning. That’s the key here: learning. Dragon learns from its mistakes—as long as you take the time to correct them.The program doesn’t need much else. There’s a bit of training that can be finished in a few minutes. Or skipped entirely. Either way, the program makes very few errors while it learns. Fewer and fewer as I continue to work, until it delivers accuracy approaching 100%. There are occasional mistakes, for sure, but it’s better than my best typing skills.Most mistakes are understandable. “Wine” for “whine.” “Quit essential” for “quintessential.” Fortunately Dragon understands context, looking a few words ahead and behind every word it types. And unlike my own skills at the computer, Dragon never misspells. Even when words are misunderstood, errors are spelled correctly. That alone makes the package worth gold.Fine out-of-the-box, Dragon grows uncannily smarter the more time spent with it.There are quite a few tools to tweak accuracy, even though the program trains itself as you work.The more time spent correcting spelling and fixing misunderstood words, the more effective it becomes. Dragon even explores word processing files and e-mails to learn the words you use and the syntax of your writing. Like a bright child, the program does well with guidance.Dragon isn’t flawless. I had trouble installing it on my main computer and my portable demanded that I retrain the microphone every time I ran the program. On the other hand, a call to Nuance tech support solved everything quickly and well.The Pro version has the added boon of opening most programs by voice command. Given my current one armed state, it was ideal to mutter “email” and get to work. It slips from time to time, but Dragon differentiates well between text and commands. The result is a quick and easy flow from talk to work.Among its tricks, Dragon saves audio files of anything it types. Play back in your own voice or use the program’s mechanized computer voice (which does just fine). How nice to listen to the flow of your document, read by you.Except for it’s Basic version, Dragon transcribes voice recordings—as long as it’s your voice. (More on that later.) I’ve always made audio notes in my car, leaving some poor soul the task of transcribing my high-speed musings. For the first time, I can hook my recorder to my computer and have Dragon turn my talk into type, although the tape to type accuracy isn’t perfect.I gave the command “go to end” and Dragon typed in “Kyoto and…”. Hardly what I would hope to see in the middle of this article. But at 60 miles an hour and my mind somewhere else, it’s an error I can live with.The program offers a plethora of commands; they can either be spoken or entered with shortcut keys. There is perhaps no aspect of the program that can’t be controlled and should you have a specific vocabulary, Dragon will read your files and learn those words.I love this program. It allows me to think in ways I can’t do with my fingers on the keyboard; it provides air space and there are times my brain needs that. It’s best that I don’t watch the monitor as I dictate. I’ve set Dragon for the best accuracy so its typing lags far behind my speaking; still it makes almost no mistakes and bit by bit I’m learning to trust it.For what it’s worth, in the last 300 words or so, Dragon has made one error, typing resell instead of re-spell. I’ll readily attribute that to my slurred speech and, interestingly, the second time around, Dragon got it right.So what won’t Dragon do?Alas, it doesn’t have an original thought in its brain. No matter how well and how often I’ve trained it, it will not type anything more than I say. Like my wife, it won’t act on things I think but never say aloud.It’s also lousy at transcribing anyone else’s dialog. Filmmakers’ Holy Grail of automatic transcriptions from dailies to print remains a fantasy. It looks like another generation or two before programs can understand new voices from new sources. Given the power in this version of Dragon, I have no doubt we’ll reach that point soon.Meanwhile, Steve Hullfish has devised a method (named “Hullfishing”) of repeating the words of a recording into a trained dictation program. Since the program knows your voice, it works, though it feels akin to patting your head while rubbing your stomach. It’s definitely for those with more time than money.Dragon isn’t just one more tool for the kit. It’s truly a great adjunct to whatever work you’ve been doing. Figure 20 minutes to train the program and a week to learn all its tiny nuances. In both cases, it’s seriously worth the effort.More from:Dragon NaturallySpeaking 1 Wayside RoadBurlington, MA 01803781 565 5000www.nuance.com/naturallyspeaking/

Written by Norman Berns

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