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| Oct 18, 2012
"Dictating to your computer is so easy. No typing, no more spelling mistakes, it's the dyslexic person's dream."
Q What’s the most important factor for success? The hardware? The software?
A No; it’s the person
The latest software (Dragon NS Preferred 10 Software) has really solved the technical problems. A normally clear speaker, using a recent computer with a decent microphone and with a little experience should get very good recognition results and gain real productivity benefits. We outline later the technical problems which can still arise and that still need to be avoided.
However, Speech Recognition can still lead to frustration and a lack of success. Today, the main reasons for this will be human, not technical.
Speech recognition software is more likely to be successful if you are motivated. So, if you have a disability or need to use your hands for something else while writing (e.g. radiologists) and are patient enough to train the software to recognise your voice (in fact, a fairly quick process these days) and learn how to use it, you will probably manage fine.
In addition, you are more likely to be a “great dictator” if:
- You can speak fluently and clearly;
- You use a wide vocabulary;
- You can find the words you need easily (you have good word retrieval);
- You already understand word processing & punctuation;
- You can multi-task – that is, you can use the software whilst composing text;
- You have as much privacy as you feel you need to dictate confidently.
None of those bullet points are essential, but the more you can tick, the more likely it is that speech recognition will work for you.
It helps a lot to have somebody who knows speech recognition to guide you through the early stages. Ideally, if you can afford it, a professional one-to-one trainer will save you time and give you the best start.
Each mistake that you make takes many times longer to correct compared with dictating a word correctly. So it is worth going to a lot of trouble to improve accuracy by one or two percentage points. This is particularly important for dyslexic people who are liable to have more difficulty finding and correcting an error than somebody who reads and spells well.
It is absolutely critical to have the microphone (”mic” or “mike”) properly adjusted, and we suspect that failure to do this is the single most likely cause of frustration and failure at dictation. The setup program might tell you that your microphone is properly adjusted when it is not the case. Sometimes, it is not until you have had the system running for a while that you can be sure that the adjustment is correct.
Notebooks versus Desktops:
It is generally the case that a notebook or laptop computer will be slower than a desktop machine of the same specification. It follows that it is all the more important (and, alas! all the more expensive) to have more than the minimum spec if you want a notebook to perform well. The worse performance is partly because of the different chips, the power-saving capabilities and the smaller components on the notebook. It is also often the result of notebooks being “noisier” than desktops, so that the recognition engine has trouble getting a clear signal from your voice. Fan noise can also be an issue if the fan cuts in and out unpredictably.
Most new computers now give adequate sound input quality. Your best policy is to buy a certified speech-recognition-ready machine.
You should make it clear to the person selling you a computer that you want it for dictation, and that you will take it back if the sound input quality is not good enough.
If all else fails, whether with a notebook or desktop, if the sound quality is not good enough you can add a USB microphone. Once again, however, it is helpful to have an expert on hand to help you work out that the computer’s sound processing isn’t good enough.
For obvious reasons the microphones that are usually provided with the software have to be cheap, and while they may be adequate for sound input quality under favourable conditions, they may be impossible to adjust adequately for many head shapes and so be uncomfortable. And the mics often, in consequence, refuse to keep in position. This is important. If the microphone moves too far away, so that the signal is weaker than it was adjusted for, or if it moves too close so that you have to hold it (causing noise) or so that it brushes your face, or so that it picks your breathing up, this will significantly spoil the sound quality and cause rotten recognition.
So you will usually get better results with a better microphone than that supplied in the box. Sometimes it may make the difference between success and failure. We recommend the Andrea-NC-181VM, particularly for classroom use. It also has a reputation for being:
- as accurate as any;
- holding its position;
- minimising interference from external noises.
Proof reading, especially from a computer screen, is difficult, especially for dyslexic people. Even the best dictation system will make recognition mistakes.
To spot these errors, speech feedback is useful, where the computer reads back to you what it has written. Dyslexic people often find that speech feedback helps with grammar as well helping you to realise, for example, that a sentence has no verb. The classic program to do this with is Texthelp Read & Write. Dragon NaturallySpeaking includes its own text to speech synthesis program, which can be useful. However, it is not a full and adequate substitute for Texthelp Read & Write, which features a spell checker and word prediction and can also be useful even in dictation: it can help make a correction when the program hasn’t supplied the correct alternative. Most of all, the text reader window, which highlights each word as it reads it, really helps a dyslexic person by making it much easier to follow the reading and focus on the mistakes. ClaroRead is a similar, but simpler product which has given careful thought to integration with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
Can be very valuable, both to know how to use the system, and, more fundamentally, to be able to recognise when it is working properly and when not.
For somebody new to dictation there are a lot of things to get right: diction style, microphone adjustment and positioning, making corrections, punctuation and the voice commands. Training from somebody who knows their stuff will help make the small modifications to speech style (pace, clarity, particularly of unstressed words, evenness of volume) which make a big difference. They will also be able to tell whether the microphone is properly adjusted.
For those not familiar with computers, some one-to-one training, support, and help with the training reading for poor readers, will make a lot of difference.
Training the software
You can train the software to recognise your voice by reading a prepared script from the screen. In addition the program learns as it goes along from what it gets right and from your corrections, so that its accuracy should improve as time goes on. You can skip the training (which normally takes a few minutes) with the latest NaturallySpeaking, and just pitch straight in to dictating. This can be useful with people who have reading problems, for whom the training can be difficult, although for most people we would still recommend doing the training. Another strategy is for a support person to whisper the script phrase by phrase into the user’s ear.
Keep it simple:
Even the most sophisticated and expensive dictation system has its own simple version of the WordPad wordprocessor to dictate into. We strongly suggest that you start just by using this, on its own. Get that working well, fluently and with confidence, before you go on to using the other features of your dictation package if you wish.
It is dictation of passages of text, working well, which will give you a major increase in productivity, with the least to learn. Don’t forget that dictating directly into, say, MS Word will make recognition go slower, unless you have loads of spare power and RAM.
If you have a mobility problem, such as RSI, then not using mouse and keyboard will also be important to you, and you might want to use the dictation software to navigate around windows and menus.
Working with children:
There is still a lot to discover about using dictation systems with children. The points made above about motivation apply in buckets with children. On the whole children are not producing masses of written work, so are less likely to have the motivation tp persevere with speech recognition. But where spelling, handwriting and composing are major problems, then SR can be hugely liberating and allow children to express their ideas on paper fluently for the first time in their lives.
Dictation systems can encourage children to speak clearly. It is important to make sure that you are familiar with the program and that it is recognising you well before you try it with a child. It is often a good idea to make corrections for the child to start off with, which allows them to see what they have achieved without the extra learning and possible frustrations of correcting errors.
Studies have shown that students with learning difficulties who use speech recognition have better vocabulary, are more creative, better organised and more motivated and have better all-round literacy skills.
Which is the best speech recognition system?
For PCs, we recommend Dragon NaturallySpeaking. For Apple computers there is Dragon Dictate for Mac.