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Hands Off: Using Dragon NaturallySpeaking

Professional writer finds it twice as fast as keyboarding -- with some minor annoyances

By Lamont Wood
May 18, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - You decide what you are going to say. You say the words. They appear on the screen. You're done.

That's what writing with speech recognition -- specifically, Dragon NaturallySpeaking Version 9.0 -- amounts to. The lifetime it took to achieve a smooth keyboarding rate of 60 words per minute no longer matters. The skill you effortlessly mastered as a child -- talking -- is all that's required to input text to your computer.

Of course, there's a little more to it than that, but the requirements are trivial compared to, say, a semester of typing class. First, you'll want a fast processor, but everything sold new today will probably suffice. You will want to install all the RAM you can in it -- a gigabyte is a good start. You'll want a fairly quiet place to work, but any place you feel comfortable talking on the phone will probably suffice. And you have to believe that consistent pronunciation is a worthy goal, and not an artificial, elitist imposition.

Is speech recognition finally good enough?

    Read Lamont Wood's report on the state of speech recognition technology

The software installs from two CDs in a conventional manner. The package also comes with a headphone/microphone, and you'll want to make sure it's connected correctly before beginning -- the correct I/O ports are not always obvious.

After it's installed, the software will examine the vocabulary of your "My Documents" folder, and ask you to read at least one short canned passage while it analyzes the way you pronounce the words. This reading is called the enrollment process and only takes a few minutes -- unlike earlier versions of the software in the last decade, where the process took nearly an hour.

Once it's running, Dragon NaturallySpeaking will install a command bar along the top of screen, with a microphone icon and various menu items. To begin dictation, you position the cursor on the screen, just as if you were about to type something. But instead of typing, you click the microphone icon and began speaking.

At this point, accuracy will probably be about 95%. That means there will be about 10 mistakes per double-spaced page. That's well short of perfection, but the mistakes will be correctly spelled words that just happen to be the wrong words. To correct an incorrect word, you select it and say the correct word. In most cases, that suffices. Correcting the text, in other words, takes hardly more time than it takes to proofread it. Inputting that text, meanwhile, happens at conversational speed, which for most people is between 120 and 150 words per minute. (The software claims to be able to handle 160 words a minute.)

By comparison, the average typing speed for an office worker is about 40 to 50 words a minute. My own is about 60 with an accuracy of 93%, so on the whole, I've found that using speech recognition is about twice as fast as typing. Those who type at hunt-and-peck speeds will experience results that are even more dramatic.

Click the play button for a look at DragonNaturallySpeaking in action

(Note: You may have to click twice)

Dragon NaturallySpeaking in action

After the user starts speaking, the yellow "results box" appears near the text insertion point, showing what Dragon thinks it has heard so far. The results will change as the phrase lengthens and Dragon is able to perform further analysis. For instance, it decided that "period" was punctuation in all three sentences.

In the third sentence, it initially placed "to" after "brought" but moments later changed it to "two," successfully analyzing the homonyms. Dragon was less successful with the homonyms in the second sentence, failing to differentiate "which" and "witch."

Dragon types the resulting text after analyzing a phrase, so that what appears on the screen may fall a sentence behind what the speaker is saying (as was the case in this example.) This can be disorienting and users are advised to not watch the screen during dictation.

When finished, the user selected the second "which" and spoke the word "witch" again. Dragon knew enough to respell it as the other homonym.

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