Keyboards aren’t necessarily the best way to talk to computers

City of London Dragon

What’s a City of London dragon got to do with it? Read on…

.. and that is why the mouse was developed. The invention of the mouse actually took place in the 1960’s (see this link, for instance, on the invention of the computer mouse), but it became widespread with the introduction into personal computing of the “Graphical user interface (GUI)” in Macs and then Windows in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Prior to then, communication into the computer was generally by keyboard. Even earlier, and stretching back into the mists of my own student days, data input was achieved by feeding punched cards into the computer. The position of the holes in the cards represented the data contained on the card. For the average, modern user, though, we had the keyboard and then we had the mouse. And now, particularly with the advent of tablets and smartphones, we also have touch-screens with their flourishes of touching and swiping and tapping.

However, none of the developments since the keyboard has helped us much when it comes to inputting a large amount of text (apart from OCR – the business of capturing an image of text using a scanner, and then attempting to turn that input into editable text).

Suppose you are writing a book or a thesis
. The normal thing to do would be to type it in using a standard word processing program. This is ok if your typing skills are at least good enough that the process of typing does not interfere with any creative process that needs to take place at the same time. Obviously, you could use a different method, such as getting the creative stuff down longhand and then transcribing it to computer later, but that may double the effort of recording. Similarly, you could talk into a voice recorder for later transcription by yourself or an amanuensis. But maybe you can’t afford one.

Dragon on Holborn Viaduct

This one’s on Holborn Viaduct

So, it’s long been thought that it would be a really good idea if we could just talk directly to the computer and it could, in effect, do the typing for us. For that matter, why couldn’t it take orders in the same way? Instead of clicking on an option or typing a shortcut, why not just say “print the current page”?

Well, we can
. The software has been around for years. I know: I’ve bought at least two versions over the years – and yet I don’t use it.

Why not?
Doesn’t it work? Well, yes, it does work up to a point, but the main problem is that it takes quite an investment of time before it starts paying off. Like many people, I just haven’t had the patience.

You have to start by training your “speech recognition” software to understand what you are saying and what you really want it to do. It seems to me that the difficulties are twofold:

  • The time you need to spend formerly “training” the software.
  • The time you need to spend training it “on the job”. This is when it’s very easy to say “blow this for a game of soldiers, it’s quicker to do it the old way.”

So why would you bother attempting it? There are several reasons why it might be worth persevering:

  • You do a lot of typing, so it would be worth the effort of learning a method that is better in the long run.
  • You think your “creative process” might be helped by removing the obstacle of picking your way around a keyboard letter by letter.
  • You have a physical problem, such as arthritis, that makes it difficult to use a mouse and/or a keyboard.
  • You need to keep up with your clients (that’s me!)

As time goes by, the software gets better so the “cost” in terms of the effort to train it is reduced. Also, as hardware gets faster and more powerful, it can better handle the demands of speech recognition software. So, having written this blog post, I’ve now convinced myself that it’s time I had another go. I’m very hopeful that the last software I bought (two or three years ago) will work on my Windows 8 machine.

Dragon Naturally Speaking Pack ShotIf you, too, are thinking of having a go, then have a look at Dragon Naturally Speaking 12 from Nuance. I think it’s the de facto standard now. Your computer does need to have a microphone and speakers. Almost all modern computers of all types have speakers, but if you’ve got a desktop computer then you may need to buy a microphone. Microphones are almost always built into laptops of all types and sizes.

Windows Options – Dragon Home (£79.99) or Dragon Premium (£149.99)
Mac – Dragon Dictate 3 (£129.99)

These prices include VAT but do not include a shipping cost of about £6 if buying from the Nuance website.

I have more than one client (well, two actually) who have mastered Dragon (neither of whom are called George) and have incorporated it into their working routine, and another one who’s gearing up to start soon. If you are thinking of doing likewise then I would say that I think the technology is up to it now, but you must still expect a bit of a learning curve.

Now, where is my master disc and will it run on Windows 8?

© 2011-2014 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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