To speak or not to speak, that is the question

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome has me exploring the feasibility of leaving the keyboard behind for my writing.

Wrist brace

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is an evil condition. It can reduce the strength of your wrist and hand. It can make it difficult to do simple things like grip objects. It can reduce you to tears with severe pain when you do things like move your hand. Worst of all, if you are a writer, it can make typing on a keyboard an exercise in painful futility.

I've had CTS for years. That's not surprising given the amount of typing I've done the last decade. I suspect my years of using 5+ pound Tablet PCs for taking ink notes in my previous career played a role, too. In fact, I experienced symptoms of CTS more often back then than in recent years after leaving the heavy tablets behind.

The CTS symptoms start all at once. First, there is alternating numbness and tingling in my left hand. Then the pain in the wrist and hand appears, triggered by simply moving my wrist. It progressively gets worse until I do something about it.

Several years ago, a doctor recommended a wrist brace to wear when the symptoms appear. That suggestion was golden, as wearing the brace for a week or two has always caused the symptoms to go away.

Thinking about the future and the impact that CTS will have on my ability to type, I've been giving serious thought about using speech input for my writing.

The brace holds my wrist and hand in a rigid position, making it clumsy to do simple things. It's worth putting up with the brace though, as it stops the progression of CTS and gets my hand back to normal. I then put the brace away until the next time symptoms appear, usually months later.

This time, CTS is back with a vengeance. My left hand started tingling a week ago. Then the numbness started, followed by the pain. When I started paying close attention to the problem, I noticed something I've never seen before — the muscles in my left hand have atrophied. It's no wonder my left hand's strength is markedly reduced compared to my right hand.

Unfortunately, my trusty wrist brace didn't make the move last year with my other important stuff. I have no idea where it is, and I really need it to arrest the progression of the CTS.

Thankfully, Amazon has me covered, and a new brace will be here today. I'm concerned that my symptoms are worse than they've been in the past, and the brace may not work as well as it has previously. If that's the case, then surgery will be in my future.

Even if the brace is able to reverse my symptoms, it will take a few weeks. Typing will be difficult while wearing the brace, and given how severe these symptoms are, I will be reluctant to return to the keyboard even if they disappear in the future. It's clear that the CTS is getting progressively worse.

Thinking about the future and the impact that CTS will have on my ability to type, I've been giving serious thought about using speech input for my writing. It's a scary thought but it may be unavoidable.

I'm a mobile guy, and all my gear is of the mobile variety. That's what I use, and that's what I have to work with to use speech recognition for writing. This leads me to wonder how different platforms and devices will handle the speech recognition.

Next: Speech recognition doesn't scare me; what devices I will test

Speech recognition doesn't intimidate me

I won't be entering into the valley of speech input blindly. I've been playing with speech recognition for over a decade. It's been a passion of mine since the earliest methods appeared.


I was impressed when IBM first introduced Via Voice, probably the first commercial personal speech recognition product. The PCs of that time were barely able to provide the compute power needed for real-time speech recognition, but IBM's technology was all the more impressive for that.

Via Voice was such an advanced product for its time that I was captivated with the technology. I got extensive training on the technology and the practical use of it directly from IBM. They showed me why interpreting spoken words accurately was so complicated. It was fascinating training, and IBM certified me as a Speech Recognition Specialist as a result.

My fascination with speech input has continued since then, and I try it on every platform I use. I've come to realize its usefulness is hit and miss depending on a lot of factors. Those factors will play a significant role in my attempt to use speech for my writing work.

Work methods must change

The most important question I have is whether the internal microphones on these devices are good enough for accurate recognition.

No matter what device and platform ends up working best for this work, my work methods will have to change. I will still do research for my articles in public venues, but there will be no more writing in those places.

For speech recognition to have a chance to work well, a quiet area is required. I plan on doing the "writing", or speech input, in my home office. There will be no more music playing in the background, as is my common practice; quiet is required to make this work.

Dictating text into a computer means speaking clearly and slowly to improve the accuracy of the interpretation. That will require lots of practice on every device and platform I test. The real trick to input by speech will be making sure that my writing style doesn't change. When speaking long articles, it is common to end up with short, choppy sentences, and that is no good.

The spoken word is often much different than the written word. Through trial and error, I will have to come up with an entry methodology that works well for speech recognition, while maintaining my voice or writing style. I will only consider this a success if it's impossible to tell from reading my articles if they were typed as usual or dictated into the system.

You deserve the best writing I can do, and that's what you will get from me. That's not an idle promise, that is the way it will be.

Devices to be tested

I will start my journey into speech input with the MacBook Pro I recently purchased. Speech recognition is ingrained in OS X, and from the little experimentation I've done so far, it is OK. It allows speech input in any recognizable text entry box on the screen.

I will also test the Chromebook, although speech input is a very recent addition to Chrome OS. I don't hold out much hope to use it extensively, but will give it a shot.

I have great hope for using speech with the ThinkPad Tablet 2 I am testing. The speech recognition integrated into Windows has been good for years, and I'm hoping Windows 8 is as good or better as earlier versions. Speech recognition requires a lot of processor horsepower, and I'm concerned the Atom processor might not be up to the task.

Google's speech input is much better than most people realize, and I will be trying it on the Nexus 7. How it will handle longer entries is not clear, but I will see.

I'll also be testing the iPad, both the standard one and the iPad mini. I have used speech input in Siri quite successfully, and Apple has rolled that out across the system. I should be able to dictate articles into the browser tool we use at ZDNet, at least in theory.

Primary question

There is a big unknown as I start using speech for text entry, which will have to be figured out quickly. The most important question I have is whether the internal microphones on these devices are good enough for accurate recognition.

Most of the devices I will test have array microphones designed to cancel background noise. This is to make it easier for the system software to accurately interpret the spoken words. If they don't work well enough, then an external noise cancelling microphone will be required for the writing. I have several to choose from, so we'll see how it goes.

Methodology for writing

I plan on doing my research for articles much the same as I do now. I can do that using any of my devices since speech will not be a big factor. I should be able to do light typing for this work. I already use short voice notes in my work, and expect I'll do more of that. That works well across all the platforms at my disposal, so it shouldn't be a problem.

Writing the articles proper will be done totally with speech using whatever I determine does it best. I will dictate each article from start to finish in as many sessions as it takes. My experience with speech recognition is to ignore "typos" as I go, and just get the words into the system and "on paper". For those times when the interpretation fails miserably, I plan on having an external audio recording of my dictation. That will allow me to playback what I said at the time and grasp how to correct the bad interpretation.

After each article is written, I will do the editing phase much as I do now. I'm hoping the light typing required for editing won't cause my wrist any problems and that the brace doesn't interfere with it. If it does, I'll have to get good at using speech for this work, too. I hope that is not the case.

I am interested to hear from anyone who is currently using speech input on a regular basis. Please share what you are using and how you make it work. This is not going to be an easy change for me, and I can use any help you can offer.


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