BOOT CAMP 524 (13/05/08)

Windows Vista Voice Recognition, part 1


Open Internet Explorer, Show Numbers, 23, OK, Speech Recognition, Show Numbers, 51, OK’. The actual numbers may vary but if you say that to a trained Vista PC you should see an interesting Wikipedia article on how computers have learned to understand speech.


Voice or speech recognition (SR) has been the Holy Grail of computing since the year dot. The best systems can achieve near human standards of comprehension and reliability; high-performance SR programs have been around for several years but it’s never really caught on amongst mainstream computer users. Part of the reason has been the cost. Good quality SR software can be quite pricey, then there’s the time and effort involved in teaching a program to recognise the user’s voice and this can be a tedious and long-winded process. Even when a SR program has been fully configured you can still end up wasting a disproportionate amount of time correcting mistakes and undoing unexpected actions.


But maybe it’s time to take another look; one of Windows Vista’s less well-known features is a built-in speech recognition system and I have to say that it is really rather good!  Microsoft hasn’t made any significant breakthroughs in SR technology in fact the system it uses is fairly average by current standards, but it does have a head start over most of its rivals. To begin with it is included with Vista, so it’s effectively free and it is reasonably well integrated with Windows.


Microsoft is careful not to tout speech recognition solely as an accessibility aid and I caution anyone who has difficulty using a mouse or keyboard not to raise their hopes too high. The MS website blurb claims it is ‘for people who want to significantly limit their use of the mouse and keyboard while maintaining their overall productivity’. That’s a tad optimistic to say the least but it really is possible to control a Vista PC and most Windows programs entirely by voice commands. However, you should be aware that it takes a lot of practice, superhuman patience and the serenity of a Buddhist monk….


Over the years I have tested countless SR packages and they all have one thing in common, an inability to deal with anger, frustration and sarcasm, or understand swear words. During the training sessions you tend to be reasonably calm and collected and speak clearly, consequently the success rate can be quite high. But when things go wrong your voice changes, sometimes only subtly but the errors increase, which makes you even angrier and less intelligible, with predictable consequences.


Another less obvious failing of SR technology is that it can only function in a reasonably quiet environment, which may be difficult to achieve in the average home or office. It also means you have to avoid coughing, sneezing or wheezing, muttering to yourself, and remember to disable the program or mute the microphone when the phone rings.


Nevertheless, under ideal conditions and with calmness of spirit and surroundings speech recognition is well worth investigating. If you follow the instructions you should be able to open and close programs, surf the web and compose documents and emails. Whether you will be sufficiently convinced to want to stop using your keyboard and mouse is another matter but it’s an interesting exercise, and quite impressive when it works properly, so lets get started.


After plugging in your microphone (see this week’s Top Tip) the first job is to set the sound input level. We’ll deal with training and using the program next week. There are two ways to open Windows Speech Recognition; the traditional method is to go to Start > All Programs > Accessories > Ease of Access > Windows Speech Recognition and double click. But this is Vista and you should be making use of the excellent Search facility, so in the Search box on the Start menu start typing ‘speech’ and after the second or third letter Windows Speech Recognition should appear on the list. Double click on it and the SR control panel opens. You can move this anywhere on the desktop, or dock it to the top or bottom edges of the screen.


Right click on the panel and the main menu appears, select Configuration > Configure my microphone. And select your microphone type from the list. Click Next then Next again and read aloud the tongue-twisting test phrase. If Vista is happy with it click Next to exit the setup wizard. If for any reason the mike test fails check that it’s plugged into the correct socket. Otherwise make sure that it hasn’t been muted, or the level is set too low by double-clicking the speaker icon in the System Tray (next to the clock). Select the Microphone tab and adjust the slider. If you still can’t get it to work try another microphone.



Next Week – Windows Vista Voice Recognition, part 2





Special features in Windows designed to assist users with a wide range of physical impairments and learning difficulties



Sensitivity control for a microphone connected to (or built into) a computer or laptop



Powerful and constantly indexed facility for finding programs, data, documents, images and files stored on a PC



Apart from a PC running Windows Vista the only other thing you are going to need is a microphone. Most laptops have a built-in mike but they are rarely much good for this type of application, being too far from the user’s mouth. Increasing the input level simply makes them more responsive to ambient noise and hard drive motor whine. They do work but a proper desktop microphone is much better but far and away the best option is a headset mike, which allows the sensitivity to be reduced to a minimum.


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