To speak or not to speak, that is the question

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

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.

Topics: Mobility


James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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