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Via Voice

IBM ViaVoice

Voice Recognition Takes Another Step Forward

by Jim Bray

HAL the conversation computer isn't here yet, but it appears he's well on his way.

IBM's ViaVoice, now in versions 7 (a variety of which are available), is the closest step yet to making your computer respond to your verbal proddings. It still has its shortcomings (as don't we all!), but on the whole it's a pretty nifty package.

I tried ViaVoice Pro, Millennium Edition, which is a fully featured version. It works in the Windows 9x/NT 4 environments and has the easiest setup I've tried to date for a voice-activated product.

The package comes with the software on CD-ROM, as well as a manual and a headset that connects into your sound card. There's no USB support as of yet, but it would make sense that would be coming down the road.

There are a lot of usability features packed into ViaVoice, including wrinkles designed to let the software learn how you work (and sound) and tailor itself to you. This is "artificial intelligence" stuff and it works pretty well on the whole, though it also proves that, no matter how good the software is, computers are still damn stupid beasts.

ViaVoice is designed to be more than just a dictation-taker; it's also meant for surfing the Web, so you can speak to your Browser and have it follow your directions and it also works with Microsoft Office and Lotus 1-2-3 commands. This is pretty neat: you order the PC to load a particular application, and then tell it to do something (for instance, "schedule a meeting") and away it goes, happily obeying your wishes.

I wish kids were as compliant!

IBM says ViaVoice can also be configured for multiple users, which is quite a trick since it has to learn the nuances of more than one voice.

You can also use it to speak navigation commands for which you'd normally use the mouse.

When you first install ViaVoice, and restart Windows, you're greeted by the system's cutesy helper - a pencil that looks suspiciously like it was inspired by those horrid Microsoft Office Assistants that are the first thing I turn off. Then you sally forth into the "User Wizard," which sets up the system for you and trains you and it to use each other. The Wizard does a really good job of walking you through the ins and outs, including the proper way to wear the headset so the mic's placed correctly.

Then you test the sound quality for input and output, and begin reading a series of paragraphs into the microphone to get the computer used to your voice. This is actually a pretty interesting process, because IBM has written the paragraphs not only as a setup routine, but as an introduction to voice recognition technology itself, which puts what you're doing into context and explains the difficulties involved in having a mindless computer recognize - and act upon - your speaking voice.

Once that section's completed, the little pencil inside the PC hunkers down and analyzes your speech, which takes a few minutes. Then you can have the system analyze the documents you've stored on your computer, and it pores over them looking for things it can grab onto about your writing style or words that can help it better match your words to your voice.

When ViaVoice finally heads into action, it puts a toolbar across the top of your screen and that darn pencil pops up and gives you a few pointers on using the thing. It's actually handy advice; I just have trouble getting over the cutesiness, though I'm sure many people like it.

The first thing I tried was to load Microsoft Outlook. I said "load Outlook" and ViaVoice went "Huh?" (figuratively, of course) - so I said "open outlook" and it said "Huh?" So I said "help" and as if by magic a help wizard came up. I talked my way through it (it worked very well) to the point where I learned to say "What can I say?" to find out what commands were recognized. The pencil probably already told me this if I'd been paying attention, but I guess artificial intelligence goes both ways.

So I learned you have to say "Open Program <program manufacturer and name>", as in "open program Microsoft Word," before the little droid will spring into action - but once you do that it does, indeed, spring obediently into action.

It takes a while to get comfortable with the methodology, and for it to get comfortable with you, but once you're up to speed it's pretty neat - though I have to admit I can open a lot of programs and type a lot of text in the time it takes to get up to speed with any of today's voice recognition applications.

Naturally, if you throw it a curve, ViaVoice may swing and miss. For instance, I dictated "'Twas brillig and the slythy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe (You certainly can't blame ViaVoice for missing that!) and it transcribed "To was ability antislavery toasted dire and dimple in the way." Even though that's a howler, there's a certain logic to what the software thought I said.

I used ViaVoice to set up Microsoft Outlook, and all the configuration Wizards worked well with my voice commands until the last one - which was a notice that Outlook had just crashed, and I had to close that message with the mouse. Once Outlook was started and I'd clicked through that damn Office Assistant, however, it worked like a hot darn.

Dictation works well, as long as you remember to speak your punctuation and don't throw the application too many surprises. You can also edit and otherwise make corrections verbally.

The software really does appear to learn as it goes, at least to a certain extent, and it does a good job of recognizing contexts of similar-sounding words (like through and threw). I also noticed that it has no ego to bruise, because I called it all sorts of names and told it to do all kinds of rude things and it never talked back to me.

Speaking of talking back, another neat feature is called "ViaVoice Outloud," which is kind of like voice recognition in reverse. It takes text, including a web page, and reads it to you. It sounds like Stephen Hawking, however, so you probably won't want to use it for reading bedtime stories to the kids, but it can be great tool for visually impaired people who want to surf the net or have other files read to them.

Overall, I certainly had my share of stops and starts and frustrations while ViaVoice and I were getting used to each other, but on the whole I found the suite works pretty much as advertised - though once again it also points out how far the technology has yet to go. Still, there are lots of applications for such technology already, some of which I hadn't thought of before IBM pointed them out to me.

For example, in a project IBM is doing with Canada's St. Mary's University, they're using voice technology to make lectures accessible to the hearing (or, since they're students, listening) impaired. What they do is equip the lecturer with a wireless microphone and run it through the voice recognition software. This, in turn, is hooked into a big screen video projector, which displays the lecture as text almost as it's being said. It's a cool idea.

It's also a wonderful tool for other students, who can get a transcription of the lecture on floppy disk, or for download - or even converted into Braille! Now they don't even need to show up for the lectures anymore!

Not only that, but a deaf student in a remote location can also take advantage of the lecture, bringing a whole new functionality to remote conferencing.

I could also see this being used to take minutes at corporate meetings and the like, if it's trained to recognize everyone's voice around the table.

As long as the prof doesn't make any arcane references to Lewis Carroll stories...

ViaVoice is the easiest to use and most integrated voice recognition application I've used so far. I still won't throw away my mouse and keyboard, but each generation of this technology gets more interesting and more attractive - and offers more help to those who can really make good use of this type of technology.


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January 31, 2006