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6/20/2007
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Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking Lets You Talk Instead Of Type

The latest version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking offers excellent voice-recognition features for those who can't, or don't want to, use their keyboard.

My first experience with voice recognition was in the early 1990s, when I hooked a mic into my Mac and began experimenting with a software program that claimed it would let me control my computer by voice.

Determined to master this powerful new genie, I suffered through several days of minor insults and misinterpretations of my spoken commands. Finally one afternoon after coughing while closing a file draw on my desk, I glanced at the screen and gasped, realizing the program had misconstrued my involuntary hack as a command to delete all the files in the active folder -- my hard drive. Pouncing upon the mouse, I pressed the cancel button in time to avert a minor catastrophe, and then, without skipping a beat, removed the program from the system.

While not nearly as dramatic, my more recent encounters with "speech to text" software have convinced me that this technology wasn't yet ready for prime time. However, after a friend convinced me that he knew someone using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to effectively dictate letters at work, I decided it was once again time to chat with my computer and discover whether I, too, might enjoy the convenience promised by this technology. I obtained a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9.0, Preferred Edition, and loaded it onto my year and a half old Hewlett-Packard laptop running Windows XP. (There is an upgrade to version 9.5 on the product Web site for those users who are running Vista.)

An Impressive Start
The good news is that, within a half hour of set up and learning the absolute basics on how to work with Dragon, I was able to hook in a mic (one is provided with the package) and have my speech accurately translated into text. I found that most sentences were error-free or at least reflected my intent. While there were still enough mistakes to get an occasional chuckle, it was hard not to be impressed with the software’s accuracy. If you need to do a brain dump to capture some initial thoughts about a new project or to dictate a first draft of a letter, Dragon should perform well right from the start.

Things get tougher if you're hoping to complete your document with minimal use of a mouse or keyboard. At that point, you'll need to invest some real time in learning how to use the software.



Dragon NaturallySpeaking offers suggestions when it gets a phrase wrong.

(Click image to enlarge.)

This is not to minimize Dragon's rich set of tools and commands, and a moderately intuitive design that allows you to select text to correct mistranslations, edit sentences, and make format changes. Most remarkably, if you spend some time correcting translation errors, Dragon will learn how you speak and improve its accuracy as you work with it. For example, if you say "look into mobile recorders," but Dragon records "looking to mobile recorders," all you need to do is say "select looking to mobile recorders" and Dragon will select the text and display several choices of what the corrected text might be. You can choose one of the suggestions or simply restate the words a bit more clearly.

If the program still has trouble you can select the text -- for example, "select Dick Tatian" -- and then say "spell that," which will bring up a dialogue box for you to start inputting the specific letters by voice or keyboard. As you input the letters, Dragon will offer different choices in the spelling dialogue box, so you can cut things short and say "Choose 2" if the correct selection appears.

Once you've corrected a word, Dragon will usually get it right the next time it's spoken. According to the company, this error-correction process will allow Dragon to improve its level of accuracy towards 99%.

However, while Dragon can impressively parse your sentences and determine some words by the context in which they are spoken, it can't understand the context in which you, a multi-faceted, multi-tasking human being with your own individualized work style, operate. To realize the full benefits of the program, you have to adapt to the software and change the way you work.

For example, after an initial infatuation with the program's capabilities, I grew frustrated at my inability to remember the specific voice commands for simple editing tasks that have become second nature with a point and click. Furthermore, I needed to make my formatting requests with a certain rhythm, or Dragon would assume it was part of my input. "Scratch that," the command to erase what you just dictated, "go up 5 lines," or "bold last sentence," might be included in the text if spoken too tentatively. Yes, input was now easy, but editing and navigation still required more familiarity with the tools.

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