Who cares about tablets and smartphones when your hands don't work anymore?

Who cares about tablets and smartphones when your hands don't work anymore?

Summary: Scalding hot cappuccino meets right hand. Now I'm using voice dictation software.

(Image: Jason Perlow)

I wasn't sure what I was going to write about this weekend. I thought I would perhaps choose a subject that was related to something newsy. As fate would have it, life intervened and now I have a funny story to tell you.

This weekend, my wife had her brother and my in-laws as well as her cousins over for a visit. Everything was going just fine for the first few hours, until my mother-in-law asked me to make her a cappuccino drink.

Now, normally this goes without any incident. I am always happy to make espresso coffee drinks for people who visit my house.

However, I normally use my regular coffee mugs to do this. This time, I decided to use the paper cups my wife had bought for the occasion. This was a bad idea.

First, I microwaved the skim milk in a Pyrex container for about three minutes, super heating it to about, I don't know, several billion degrees Fahrenheit. Milk actually retains heat better than the coffee that is poured into it once it is heated. It also has the physical properties of napalm.

After retrieving the nuclear meltdown milk from the microwave, I poured into one of those paper cups. It was only about half the volume of the cup, so I really didn't get a sense of just how hot it actually was. I wanted to leave room for the espresso shots.

After tamping a perfect double shot of espresso, I hit the shot pull button. My computer compensated Rancilio Silvia espresso machine was now pumping 225F° water through the portafilter mechanism. It came out a beautiful dark brown with a nice, thick crema.

Being the perfectionist about coffee drinks that I am, and wanting to impress my house guest, I let the shot pull all the way to the top of the cup. I got distracted for a moment and allowed it to slightly overflow over the top.

I'm not exactly sure what thoughts went through my brain, if any. Obviously, I was not firing on all cylinders, this probably due to the fact that I had been imbibing various cocktails at the time. I grabbed the cup, which was now hotter than the fires of the hell itself, and which now began to overflow all over my right hand.

I then let out a giant, bloodcurdling scream, along with a long string of unrepeatable words. I'm pretty sure the entire community that I live in could hear it. I don't remember much, other than I ran to the sink, my wife quickly grabbed some ice and towels for my hands, and a few minutes later, I was having burn cream applied to my fingers, which were then being wrapped up in gauze like an Egyptian mummy.

Fortunately, the burns on my fingers are not of the "Oh my God, I need to go to the hospital" type. They're more of the "Man is this a royal pain in the ass" type. I can type with my left hand and operate things like smartphones and tablets, but it's not natural to me, as I am right-handed.

Much of my work at Microsoft, in addition to the various partner-facing conference calls that I must attend, involve writing emails and putting together presentations, not to mention the work I do writing about technology at ZDNet.

So when you can't operate a computer with a keyboard very easily, much less a touchscreen device, you suddenly begin to feel powerless and unable to do work. It's a horrible feeling to have.

Fortunately, we live in an age of advanced technology. Not only do we have cool things like tablets and smartphones, as well as ubiquitous internet access, but we also have some pretty cool voice recognition technology. I'm actually using it to write this article right now.

A few hours ago, I bought a copy of Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 voice dictation software for Windows. It's about a 3GB download. The Premium version costs $135.

It used to be that voice recognition software such as this required extensive manual training. However, the setup process and machine learning is much faster than it used to be. Also, we are now using processor chips that are hundreds times faster than what we used to have in the mid-1990s, when this technology first became generally available.

There was a five-minute enrolment process that consisted of reading John F Kennedy's Presidential inaugural speech, which was my choice out of several options.

Fortunately, I already had a really good voice-capable headset, the Logitech H820e, which I use religiously for VoIP conferencing using Microsoft Lync and Skype, among other things.

The recognition is isn't perfect, but it is pretty amazing. Some manual corrections are required, and while you can do many of them simply by using your voice, I do find myself having to type little things here and there, but it is way better than having to bulk type in a lot of text.

Over the next week or so, or for as long as it takes for my right hand to heal properly, I'm going to use this dictation software to do routine work tasks as well as write my articles for ZDNet.

It should be interesting, given that in the past, I really only used this type of technology for intelligent agents such as Siri, Google Now, or Windows Phone's own built-in voice search capabilities.

Voice dictation technology might be not as sexy as touchscreen tablets, but right now, I'm extremely grateful I have it in my bag of tricks.

Have you ever been forced to use voice recognition software due to a temporary or permanent disability? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: PCs, Emerging Tech, Smartphones, Tablets, Windows


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Ouch, feel better Jason

    I know this feeling. I wrote an article back in 1998 (and yes, voice dictation software has come a long way):


    Back then, I broke my arm shortly after starting ZATZ and PalmPower. I was still coding. I tried to get the dictation software to write the CMS code (because this was in the days before blogs and blogging software, and I was coding the CMS as we were running our sites). I wound up using a combination of (I think it was even Dragon back then) and Heather (my assistant at the time). I wound up telling her what code lines to type and trying to explain the nuances of no-spaces-before-the-semi-colon.

    Voice dictation tech has come a long way since then, but the really important thing is you heal. Feel better, bro. Feel better.
    David Gewirtz
  • Google or Apple

    What I have found is that Apple OS X and iOS seems to recognize the human voice - my voice, without training. The same can be said of Google. Siri, remarkably can understand when I ask it for weather for Yreka, CA -- something few voice apps can understand. Most think I want weather for Why Rica, CA and of course can not find that location. I tried using Microsoft on Windows without training and whoa, forget it -- not even close. On an iPad or using my Nexus 4, I can do an email -- no, not always perfect, but it gets most words correct. Background noise can throw any voice dictation off however. For voice assistants, Siri, Google, then the rest, such as Indigo, work well. Great to hear that Microsoft will introduce a new program with Cortana, I think it is called --- anyway, said to be very good for voice command.
    • My Nokia WP8 recognizes my voice just fine with no training.

      when doing voice texts or emails.

      Can't say that was the case in the early days. Definitely things have evolved nicely.
  • Tried it, can't use it, for a non-obvious reason

    I'm a lawyer and I learned to type with the two-finger method and then gradually added other fingers. I type completely by muscle memory. I have no clue which finger hits which key, but it works. I have occasionally tried to learn which finger hits which key, but I don't have the patience.

    Dragon SOUNDS LIKE a great idea and when I indexed 20,000 records for digitization of the 1940 U.S. Census it worked great.

    But when using it for work I ran into an insurmountable problem: my normal writing style is short, clear sentences. When I *dictate* it comes out typical legalese. It takes me so long to go back and change the *writing style* that it takes less time to type.

    However, there is one thing I do find it useful for. Sometimes I need editable text from a document that is in such bad shape that OCR is useless (3rd or 4th generation faxes, for example, or microscopic fonts). I use Dragon and just read the entire document, and VR is highly accurate.

    By the way, one other thing is that if you are going to use Dragon on a regular basis you should do corrections orally as much as possible. The software tracks your corrections done orally, increasing accuracy over time.
  • Probably a bit late

    I had a similar experience recently. However, as I know that the cure is to get the burn cool as quickly as possible, and to avoid creams and coverings so that it doesn't get a chance to heat up again, I ran it under the tap for a few minutes, and whenever it hurt I did it again. It went away a lot quicker than "a week or so". Ask any chef what they do when they get burnt (an occupational hazard). Mostly, they stick their hand in a flour container (which is nice and cold), or otherwise in cold water. Burn creams don't work. So far as I knew they stopped selling them in the 70s or earlier.
    • burn creams

      Ointments containing silver can prevent infection and accelerate the healing process.
  • I use dictation quite a bit

    The only downside is you have to be capable of self-proof reading. Nowadays voice dictation is quite good and there aren't many mistakes, but boy when they are there, do they ever tend to be big errors!
  • You would be surprised how many people with injuries use Dragon...

    I've been training people use Dragon NaturallySpeaking since 1999. About half of those people have some kind of injury - permanent or temporary. This also includes people with multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries.

    I'v also trained people who have been severely burned in bushfires. In most of these cases they have no choice but to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking if they want communicate with the outside world using their computer. It makes an enormous difference to their lives, and yes there are some hiccups and difficulties using speech recognition and Windows PCs can be fairly temperamental as I'm sure you're aware.

    In the whole, this technology is a real game changer for people who have permanent injuries or disabilities. For someone like yourself, it allows you to get back to work really quickly. And we often do work with people with broken bones and so forth.

    So I'm glad to hear that you're getting good results with the software. I don't work for Nuance.
    I do run my own website that helps people used Dragon NaturallySpeaking in many different ways including injury management where I occasionally post about how to get the best out of the software http://www.voicerecognition.com.au/

    I hope you're feeling better soon and have learned a lesson about battling frothing milk!
  • My mother uses Windows built in voice recognition

    My mother has MS which means that her ability to type is often affected. She thus alternates between typing and using voice recognition to pad out her ability to write.
    I myself have occasionally also fired up voice recognition when one of my hands in injured, or just to maintain a level of familiarity with it.
  • A completely hands-free work station

    Not having to type, thanks to those wonderful software or cloud services out there, is just one part of the equation… In fact, if you were completely disabled how were you going to do simple tasks like putting on your headset or control your mouse and other peripherals?…

    Unfortunately, this is the situation of hundreds of thousands of people out there. To help them, we have developed two products in the quest of a completely hands-free work station:
    - The first Variable and Long-Range Self Adjusting Input Desktop microphone for office work, the TableMike, as well as working in the move with a notebook or tablet PC, the TravelMike (www.tablemike.com)
    - The only existing software allowing to configure and control simultaneously any USB HID device, i.e. our TableMikes, handheld microphones, external keypads, and even one or several USB foot pedals, which we call Octopus USB Controller (www.octopusUSBcontroller.com)

    Anyone can download a demo version of the latter for testing purposes.

    JM Boccio
    JM Boccio