In terms of system software, Macs have had speech recognition for years, back to PlainTalk in System 7.5. Mac OS 9 sports Speakable Items 2.0, with over 80 application-specific commands, AppleScript support, and speakable buttons and boxes. Voice recognition has finally come of age.
The two products here use different systems. Voice•Power (VP) Pro examines each word (discrete); ViaVoice looks at phrases (continuous). Discrete has the advantage of allowing you to take breaks in dictation, but continuous can more readily recognize phrases like “whether the weather”.
Currently a Mac-only product, VP Pro is Dragon Systems’ successor to PowerSecretary. It claims to work on any PowerPC-equipped Mac, from a first-generation PowerMac 6100 upwards, though a decent processor is essential for a reasonable dictation speed. A lightweight, pre-amped headset is included and plugs into the minijack sockets found on most Macs. There’s a 140,000-word vocabulary, plus a 30,000-word user dictionary – expandable to 60,000 words.
Voices vary enormously. Even though this is a UK-specific version, country-wide accents, and the simple male/female difference, means that any voice recognition program has to be set up carefully. This is an arduous task which, in the case of VP Pro, takes the best part of an hour’s on-screen reading as you cover all 49 phonemes in the British language, in different contexts and varying sequences. The resulting voice file is then loaded up each time you use VP Pro. The good news is that this has to be performed just once.
With a voice file created, you can dictate into a variety of applications, including QuarkXPress 3 and 4, Word 6 and 98, Excel 5 and 98, PageMaker 6 and 6.5 and ClarisWorks 4 and 5, as well as SimpleText. The faster you dictate results in the inevitable trade-off between speed and accuracy. VP Pro defaults to a word-gap of 190ms, but this can be reduced to around 130ms.
When dictating, the status window updates to show the list of recently used words. As words fall off this list, any corrected ones modify the dictionary file – a continuous process that works well. You can also dive into the user dictionary and add words as you need to, pronouncing them several times to train VP Pro.
Editing dictated text could be easier. While you can control cursor movement by commands like “Move Left 5”, this moves five letters to the left, not five words. Consequently it’s better to edit as you go, rather than wait until the end of a file. Deleting the previous word is a simple case of saying “scratch word”.
One of the most powerful features is the use of AppleScript to launch applications, control menu options, handle Finder functions and work within programs. Text macros are also supported – VP Pro can be trained to recognize everyday phrases like “all the best”.
Voice•Power Pro’s aftersales support is worthy of special mention. Voiceworks offers three packages, varying only in the length of support. Included in this, is help in setting up the program, and the provision of AppleScripts as required. In fact, the 12-month package is primarily for those whose disabilities would usually preclude them from using a computer.
Its memory requirement also needs to be mentioned – around 15MB for the application and a further 96MB of free RAM if you’re using Mac OS 9, less for earlier versions. On a nicer note, the CD includes all relevant updates for supported applications.
Voice•Power Pro’s price may well affect its sales, but if, like me, you like the idea of having full voice-control of your Mac, then it’s worth considering.