You might be interested to know that this first paragraph of Boot Camp was written using a highly respected speech recognition program. Almost any recent Windows PC can be programmed to recognise and respond to the user's voice, converting speech into text, for writing letters, composing E-mails or faxes.

It took a little over ten minutes to enter those fifty or so words, which is why the rest of this piece is being typed on a keyboard; life is too short… In the past few years speech recognition software has improved in leaps and bounds but even the very best systems still require a lot of patience and hard work to get them up to anything like a useful speed. In the early stages it's not much faster than one-fingered, hunt-and-peck typing and it all goes to pot if you catch a cold, loose your voice or work in a noisy environment.

But what if you cannot type, either through physical disability or a keen dislike/fear of the keyboard? In that case voice recognition is a practical way of getting your words into a PC, however, do not expect instant hands-free computing. Even the fastest and most efficient voice recognition programs have to go through a long-winded training process, to learn the user's voice before they can achieve worthwhile accuracy. Moreover some speech recognition systems make heavy weather of menu commands and program controls so you could still end up using the keyboard and/or mouse for a lot of routine operations.

Although several voice recognition programs are available that work on older and slower PCs for the best results you will need a fairly recent and speedy Pentium or Pentium class multimedia machine. Other basic requirements are Windows 95 or 98, at least 16Mb of RAM and upwards of 60 megabytes of free hard disc space. The PC should have an up to date soundcard plus you will need a microphone or headset with a boom mike. A headset type microphone is preferable as these are less sensitive to background noises and the performance is usually more consistent.

The three big players in this market are Dragon Systems, IBM and Talking Technologies. Basic packages cost from around £55, rising to over £500 for the latest version of IBM VoiceType, however most home and office programs sell for less than £150. You probably won't be surprised to learn that Microsoft is also taking a very keen interest in this technology. Its web site (see contacts list) has lots of information and some interesting downloads for developers and experimenters. These include beta versions of soon to be launched voice recognition and text to speech 'engines' called SAPI (Speech Application Programming Interface).

Users of Microsoft Word might also like to try a program called Kurzweil Voice Commands, which controls all of the word processor's functions using simple spoken phrases, like 'select the next two paragraphs' or 'set this word to lowercase'. A fully working 60-day trial version is available from the Office Update section of the Microsoft web site (see contacts).

Installing a voice recognition program from CD-ROM normally only takes a few minutes, and that's when the fun begins. The program's first action is to go into a set-up routine, to measure background noise levels then test and adjust the sensitivity of the microphone. The amount of vocal training these packages require varies quite a lot. Dragon Naturally Speaking, for example, depends on the user reading long passages of text (an excerpt from Arthur C. Clark's 3001). The initial session can easily last more than half an hour, and it needs continual training to maintain accuracy. Kurzweil Voice on the other hand can be up and running in a few minutes, though first attempts are likely to be riddled with mistakes as it learns as it goes along.

The programs also work in slightly different ways. Most of them have the option (though not always included as standard) to enter text directly onto the page of your chosen word processor, as you speak. Others have their own text window. Once a file has been created and corrected it is exported to an application, such as a word processor, fax program or Internet E-mail window. 

Even after a program has been fully trained it is important to remember to speak clearly and slowly using a consistently natural voice and accent, or at least the same voice that you used when setting up the program and above all keep calm! Even the best programs make frequent mistakes and there is a natural tendency to raise the pitch of the voice in frustration, which makes it even harder for the program to follow what you're saying.

Voice recognition is a fast moving technology with huge vested interests in getting it to work properly. There is absolutely no doubt that within a very few years we'll all be chatting merrily to our PCs and the keyboard will become obsolete. The bottom line is that at the present state of development it is a very worthwhile aid for those who cannot use a keyboard. For everyone else, with fully functioning hands and fingers, voice recognition ranks as an interesting novelty -- it's quite spooky to see words appear on the screen as they are spoken -- but if you're looking for an easy ride forget it. There's a good chance you'll end up expending more time and effort, than if you simply learned to type.

Next week: choosing an Internet Service Provider




Beta software is usually a near final version of a program or application, made available to testers and volunteers on an at-their-own-risk basis, to help identify any last remaining bugs, glitches and conflicts


A self-contained program designed to do a specific task that operates within a larger application


A more or less standard fitment on modern desktop PCs, generating the sounds and music heard through the PCs speakers. Most sound cards also have a microphone input, necessary for voice recognition



Dragon Dictate/Naturally Speaking

Dragon Systems (01242) 678575,


ViaVoice/Simply speaking/Voice Type

IBM (0990) 727272,


Kurzweil Voice/VoicePad Pro

Talking Technologies 0171-602 4107.



The Solitaire game in Windows must be one of the greatest time-wasters of all time -- it drives office managers crazy -- but even though it is so simple it can be highly addictive. If you're one of the millions hooked on it then you have probably figured out by now that the Draw 3 option -- selected by default -- slows the game down, increases the odds against you winning and makes it harder to play. Of course you could just switch to easy-peasy Draw 1 setting and play it that way but where's the fun in that? The next time you're in a fix try this simple little cheat. Press and hold down the Crtl, Alt and Shift keys, then click on the top card and you'll find that you can now select cards one at a time.

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