Voice-recognition software has come a long way in the past few years. Where once you had to spend hours training it to understand your voice, now you can almost start working from scratch. Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9.0 Preferred claims to require no training at all. You do have to read a short piece of text before you can start using it, but that's all. And the program must scan all the documents on your PC to get a handle on your writing style, too.
Once this minimal training is complete, the software can be used straight away. And, although we found accuracy far below the 99 percent on the box, it isn't bad, and correcting mistakes is a breeze. You can carry out training to improve accuracy, too.
It can understand various types of English, including British, American and Australian, so you can choose the one that suits your accent best.
As this type of software is aimed at professionals who don't type, or those who have difficulty with using a keyboard, there are several features designed for their use. These include the ability to train the software to automatically type in acronyms for medical terms, or to create custom commands that will insert frequently used text, graphics or URLs with a voice command.
It can now be used on the move as well, with built-in support for Bluetooth and mobile devices.
Taming the beast
For the visually impaired there is a text-to-speech feature that will read back dictated copy, allowing you to check on accuracy, or to read aloud email messages in Outlook and Outlook Express. And you can control applications using voice commands.
The sheer range of features means it takes a while to get to grips with all that the software can offer. It requires extra effort for novices to familiarise themselves with voice-recognition software. An auto punctuate feature adds in commas and full stops, but you are required to insert other formatting styles and punctuation.
Who is voice-recognition software aimed at?
The audience for voice-recognition software is something of a niche market. The most viable tools are those in the Dragon NaturallySpeaking range of products. There's a version of the software that comes with a wireless headset, or a mobile version that includes a voice recorder. A standard edition of the software comes with a cut-down feature set, while the Professional version is designed for use on a network.
IBM ViaVoice 10.0 is the only real competitor. It doesn't offer the range of application support or advanced features, although it is much cheaper at £40 from www.nuance.co.uk.
Voice-recognition software appeals only to specific users, which is why the market has yet to become mainstream. It is aimed at those who find typing and using a mouse difficult – because of, say, physical disabilities such as sight impairment or even dyslexia – and those who need to dictate notes, but don't have the time or ability to type, such as medical professionals and lawyers. For these groups of people, the accuracy levels offered by the latest versions of speech-recognition software make it a real alternative to typing – and it can open up computing to those whose disabilities would otherwise exclude them.