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Voice Recognition: Ready for Prime Time?

by Anthony Paonita

WHEN PEOPLE speak to their computers, it's normally to curse at them. Otherwise, most of us dutifully sit at the keyboard pecking away, or if we're really slick, touch-typing the way they taught us in junior high school typing class.

L&H Voice Xpress for Legal 4 Dragon NaturallySpeaking Legal Suite IBM ViaVoice Pro Edition IBM ViaVoice for Macintosh
Lernout & Hauspie
Circle No. 345
Dragon Systems Inc.
Circle No. 346
IBM Corp.
Circle No. 347
IBM Corp.
Circle No. 348
REQUIREMENTS: IBM-compatible PC with Windows 95/98/NT 4.0 (with SP-3 or greater); Pentium 266 Mhz or equivalent, CD-ROM drive; Sound Blaster16 compatible sound card; 200 MB free hard disk space; 96 MB RAM (128 for Windows NT) Note: Web site has list of verified compatible computers REQUIREMENTS: IBM-compatible PC Windows 95/NT 4.0; Pentium 133 Mhz processor, CD-ROM drive; 16-bit sound card; 32 MB RAM (48 MB for NT); 120 MB, 40 MB more to save recorded speech, 15 MB additional to install text-to-speech REQUIREMENTS: IBM-compatible PC Windows 95/NT; Pentium 233 MHz or equivalent; CD-ROM drive; 16-bit sound card of good recording quality; 48 MB RAM; 310 MB of hard disk space; Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 or higher REQUIREMENTS: PowerMac G3 or G4, iMac or PowerBook G3 Mac OS 8.5.1 or greater; CD-ROM drive; 233 MHz or greater PowerPC; 48 MB RAM; 200 MB hard disk space; Audio input jack compatible with Andrea NC-71 microphone (Macs produced after August 1998)
SPEED: 140 words per minute SPEED: 160 words per minute SPEED: 140-160 words per minute  
FEATURES: Contains 300,000 word vocabulary with specialized legal terms; option Voice Xpress Mobile Option which includes Olympus DS-150 Digital Voice Recorder FEATURES: Built-in legal vocabulary that is customizable, automatic completion of legal terms, dictation playback, text-to-speech, editing by voice FEATURES: Hands-free mouse functions; Integration with Microsoft Word and other programs; Speech-enable Web browsing; Ability to add legal vocabularies FEATURES: Setup Assistant creates voice model for each system user "Analyze My Documents" features analyzes context Uses Apple PlainTalk to read documents back

But now it's getting easier to talk to your computer and let it do all the typing, as well as navigating the various windows and dialog boxes we've all come to accept as a normal part of the computing experience. The software that allows us to talk to our PCs (and Macs, too, finally) is a boon to lead-fingered typists as well as those who suffer from the various ailments collectively called repetitive stress injuries. And there's no secretary to frown or offer helpful grammatical suggestions as you work through a thought that's perhaps only half-formed.

Early versions of the software were, to put it plainly, infuriating. You had to speak in discrete chunks, with pronounced pauses between words, or the computer wouldn't understand a thing. More often than not, the software simply got it wrong. The problems were enough to make a lot of would-be users toss the programs in disgust.

Happily, however, voice recognition software has sufficiently matured to make it useful for most people, most of the time. You can finally speak in natural, multi-syllabic language. Plus the hefty hardware requirements to run such software, such as a lot of hard disk space, tons of memory and a sound card are easily met. Most computers have it all, without busting your budget.

Learn to Co-exist

But just like you learned how to navigate through the folder structure of your PC, or use Microsoft Word, you'll have to learn to co-exist with your speech dictation program.

There's a period of adjustment between you and the machine; it actually has to "learn" your voice. And think about it: You don't necessarily sound the same all the time. A cold can throw the software for a loop, and so can poor enunciation or breath control. So you'll also have to learn how to dictate consistently. Some makers claim that their software is intelligent enough to know when you're having a bad voice day, but users have told me that they have to make a conscious effort to speak clearly all the time.

You'll also have to learn with the fact that computer software still isn't good at understanding what you're saying in a nonliteral way. Most of us fill in the correct version of "to" when, for instance, we say "I am going to court this morning." But voice recognition software isn't quite there yet when it comes to homonyms. So get used to making corrections about 5 percent to 10 percent of the time.

Legal Specific

Three packages are currently vying for the lawyer's dollar and all three do basically the same things: They listen and type. One of them, IBM's ViaVoice, comes in a Macintosh version, the first continuous speech product for that platform. (Dragon Systems Inc. dropped its only Mac, discrete-speech product a couple of years ago, but is nearing completion of a Mac version of its popular NaturallySpeaking. MacSpeech Inc. (with Philips Speech Processing) also has a product in the works.

All three come in various flavors, from home editions to so-called professional versions. But the one you'll want is the legal edition, because it comes with expanded, legal-centric vocabularies. NaturallySpeaking, for example, will recognize certain terms, such as various court names, and insert the appropriate abbreviation, for example, "Bankr." for "bankruptcy court."

Most speech products work with the software you've got. What this means is instead of starting up the voice recognition software, you tell it to open Microsoft Word, for instance, and start dictating away. This is not true, however, of ViaVoice for the Mac, for which you speak into a special document window and then transfer your work to an application. They also feature various shortcuts and "macros," filling in the blanks for you when you utter certain words and phrases.

You'll also have to learn how to tell the software to stop taking dictation and switch gears to operate the computer -- if that's what you want it to do. For instance, I could have written this using ViaVoice on my PowerBook, then saying "stop dictation" told the machine to cut and paste this article into an Outlook Express e-mail message and send it to my editor, with an additional command to send it to the office printer.

L&H's Voice Xpress has an interesting additional feature. Its "Mobile Option" includes an Olympus digital voice recorder, which allows you to dictate on the go and then transfer it to a PC. It's probably the most useful in a car, unless you want fellow train passengers to overhear your motions or legal briefs.

Before you spring for any of these products, make sure your computer is up to snuff. Typically, you should have a fast Pentium-class or, for Macs, a G3 or G4 system, at least 32 or 48 MB of RAM (as always, more is better) plus a hefty chunk of hard disk real estate to park the application and your voice files. A good sound card is a must; the programs come with or their makers can supply you with a sensitive, unidirectional microphone that will filter out extraneous noise. [For special requirements see the chart.]

But most modern computers (those made in the past couple of years) are well up to the task. So here's your chance to do what you've always wanted to do: talk back to your computer and have it listen.

Anthony Paonita is senior editor for The American Lawyer.

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