Speech Recognition in Microsoft Office—A Godsend, or More Trouble Than It’s Worth?*

 

One of the more humorous scenes in the Star Trek film, “The Voyage Home” is one where Scotty tries to instruct a computer by speaking into the mouse.  It was funny back in 1986 because the thought of talking to a PC seemed so implausible.  But is the idea still foreign to us 20 years later?

 

Although the technology is built into MS Office 2003, some of us may be a little skeptical about using it.  Many people feel they can create documents and e-mails faster using their keyboard and mouse.  Maybe some of us are downright hostile: “I’ll give up my keyboard when they pry it out of my cold, dead fingers!”

 

But if you’re up for the challenge, take Microsoft’s built-in speech recognition for a test drive.  The time you spend can be rewarding.  Granted, when you first get started, your results may be lower than the 95% accuracy rate some users are touting.  To see why, let’s use an illustration:  you’re waiting for a flight at the airport when an unintelligible announcement blares over the public address system.  Why might you miss the message?  Maybe the announcer didn’t talk clearly enough, or wasn’t speaking directly into the microphone.  Perhaps a nearby cell phone conversation prevented you from focusing on the message.  Maybe the announcer spoke in a foreign language.

 

These are some of the same obstacles that voice recognition software must overcome anytime you use it.  Considering the colossal challenges our English language presents, it’s amazing how well Microsoft’s speech recognition functions right out of the box.  And keep in mind that this tool gets better the more you use it.  Microsoft strongly recommends using their speech training tool (you use it to train the software, not vice versa).  The more training passages you read, the better speech recognition will work.  With a little patience and a few training sessions, your accuracy will improve considerably.

 

If you work in a busy office with lots of background noise, you may be less-than-satisfied with the results.  If you speak with a foreign accent—or have a habit of speaking so rapidly that the software can’t keep up—it’s probably not for you.

 

And even if these won’t be a factor, how well can you handle being quoted out of context?  For example, suppose you’re dictating an e-mail about auto parts and state, “There, in the car already …”  How frustrated will you get if your PC understands you to say, “They’re in the car all ready”?  Word to the wise:  you’re better off ignoring the errors until finished dictating.  It’s easier to go back to correct mistakes afterward.

 

Frankly, I still prefer using my keyboard on documents that require heavy editing.  And you probably shouldn’t plan on tossing your keyboard anytime soon, either.  Rather than looking at speech recognition as a replacement for your keyboard and mouse, think of it as yet another tool available in your Office arsenal.

 

If you’re a fairly fast typist, you may decide to wait a little longer, until voice recognition accuracy improves even more.  But if a sprained wrist or carpal tunnel syndrome ever bog you down, it’s nice to know this unassuming little tool is already in place today—ready to give your voice a hand.

 

 

If you don’t want to invest in a microphone, or have firmly decided you’d rather have the language bar go away and not come back, here’s how:

 

Go to your PC’s control panel and double-click Add/Remove Programs.  Choose Microsoft Office and click the Change button.  Choose Add or Remove Features.  Be sure to check the box captioned “Advanced Customization of Applications”.  Then, in the list under Office Shared Features and under Alternative User Input, turn the icon in front of Speech to a big red X.  Click Update, and the Language bar won’t bother you any more.

 

Dave Martin

I/O Technologies, Inc.

Email:  dmartin@iotechno.com

Phone:  414-774-1995

 

* This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 edition of Magazine Soho