Keyboards Are for the Weak

The latest techno-feat from Dragon Systems makes typing, like, totally (early) '90s.

Jon Kaufthal

Sure, I've got plenty of friends who talk to their computers. A bunch also yell at, hit and scream assorted expletives at them. But communication between my PC and me is at an all-time high: when I talk, my machine really listens, with the help of Dragon NaturallySpeaking Preferred.

I admit it: it is possible that I'm too attached to my computer. I may be delusional, and I may occasionally impart human characteristics to what is essentially a collection of electronic parts. But this time I've got proof: all I have to do is talk to the thing, and my words show up on screen. After years of seeing this magic in Star Trek and 2001, it's running on my own PC, on affordable off-the-shelf software.

And indeed this is no small feat. Getting computers to understand speech is a tricky endeavor, one into which research measured in decades and millions of dollars has gone. In its recognition of continuous speech, NaturallySpeaking crosses an important divide. Whereas previous programs required you ... to ... pause ... between ... each ... word, you can speak to this one much like you'd talk to a friend on the phone (of course, you'll hopefully mumble a bit less than I do).

NaturallySpeaking is by no means perfect. But then again, neither are humans. Though the program will sometimes come up with bizarre renditions of your speech, it works surprisingly well on the whole. And as you use it, you'll find yourself becoming more comfortable with it, learning to say things like "Select previous paragraph, scratch that," to delete or "copy all to clipboard, switch to previous window, paste that" to copy and paste. The program comes with a special headset microphone, which helps to improve accuracy. And if you want your words read back to you (which is sometimes helpful for editing), NaturallySpeaking obliges.

NaturallySpeaking's dictation window looks like a jazzed-up version of WordPad. Once you've got your text, you can paste in into an email or wherever you need it. The program's "NaturalWord" module will take dictation directly into Microsoft Word 97, as long as you've got the RAM to handle it (the program itself takes 32MB, with more needed to dictate directly into Word).

To get started, you'll have to read a half-hour's worth of material so that the program can learn your voice patterns. You're given a choice of samples including Dave Barry, Scott Adams, and Arthur Clarke. While the process is long and painful, it helps NaturallySpeaking achieve far higher recognition rates.

NaturallySpeaking comes in two other flavors as well: NaturallySpeaking Personal retails for $109 and lacks the ability to dictate directly into a word processor, and a souped-up version called NaturallySpeaking Deluxe sells for $695.

Other products have also made their way onto the scene, notably IBM's ViaVoice. While IBM's product is solid, NaturallySpeaking outpaces its competition in terms of accuracy and extensiveness of hands-free editing.

But the program is not without its flaws. It runs slowly on a machine with 32MB of RAM. And voice dictation may not feel right unless you know exactly what you're saying before you start -- if you're thinking about what to say, the keyboard will likely feel more natural.

Of course, NaturallySpeaking and its peers will continue to improve. But the fact that they even exist in a viable form is an exciting development. Now if only my computer could do my research...