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The Case of the Listening Computer

Adil from India writes:

I wonder if there is a Free software program which will write as I speak into the microphone – like a dictaphone, but it writes instead of recording, so it can be edited. I have a lot of typing to do as my job entails preparing lot of documents, SOPs etc. Thanks in advance.

Hi, Adil, thanks for the great question!

Actually, you already HAVE free software that will dictate as you speak.  Did I just blow your mind?

For several of the last iterations, Windows has included ways to make their system more accessible for people with physical challenges.  In Windows XP and Vista these were called “Accessibility Options”.  In 7, the name has been changed to “Ease of Access”.  These assistants include different screen displays (such as high contrast themes), a screen magnifier, and a “narrator” that will tell you what’s happening on your screen. 

What we’re really interested in, though, is speech recognition.

Speech recognition was originally included by Windows so that a person without the use of his or her hands could access and use their computer easily.  With Windows Vista, though, Microsoft realized that there was another use: dictation software.  There is terrific dictation software available commercially for anywhere from about $80 to several hundred, depending on what functionality you want in the program and what hardware you want with it, but Microsoft realized that (without making many changes to the software that they already had bundled into Windows), they could offer a basic version of the same program for free.

There are two ways to access the dictation software on your computer.  The first is to access “ease of access” through your control panel (start>control panel>ease of access).  The other, easier (and, therefore to me, preferable) way is to simply click “start” and then, in the search box, start entering the word “speech” without the quotation marks.  When I did this, speech recognition were the third and fourth options to come up after I entered the first two letters.

This opens up your speech recognition options. 

The first thing that you want to do is click on “set up microphone” to make sure that your mic is correctly configured to work with speech recognition.  This will walk you through a wizard to set up and tune your default mic.  My personal recommendation, having worked with speech recognition, is to use a headset mic so that the computer can “hear” you clearly without any background noise.  After your mic is configured, click “start speech recognition”. 

After an introductory window explaining that the computer will now set up speech recognition for you (starting with teaching the computer to recognize your voice), click “next”. 

The computer will now ask which type of mic you’ll be using.  Choose the correct one and click “next”. 

Windows will then give you a brief tongue-twister to read into the mic, after which you click “next” and it will tell you that the computer is now ready for speech recognition. 

The next thing that you do is decide whether or not you want to use your own documents to allow the computer to better recognize your voice and understand you.  I would recommend turning this on, because your own documents will be more comfortable for you to read aloud.  Once you’ve selected this, click “next”. 

Next, choose whether you want the computer to activate manually or by using voice activation.  If you set it to manual, then speech recognition stays off until you press ctrl+windows key.  You then stop it by saying “stop speech recognition”.  In voice activated mode, speech recognition stays on in the background and you simply say “start speech recognition” to activate it.  Once you choose how you want it to run, click “next”. 

Next it will give you the option of viewing and printing a speech recognition card, which gives the basic commands of speech recognition and what to say to use these functions, such as entering a new line of text, opening a file and punctuation.  Click “next”. 

Now it will have you choose whether or not you want speech recognition to open on start-up, and then (after clicking “next”) it will give you the option of starting or skipping the speech recognition tutorial.  I would strongly suggest running this, as it gives you the basics of using speech recognition, and will allow the computer to understand your accent and speech style better.  Once you’ve completed the tutorial, speech recognition is set up and ready to use.

Before you do, though, I would recommend using the “train your computer to better understand you” option from the speech recognition window.  This will take you through a number of sentences to help the computer understand you better.

Now you’re all set up and ready to go!

I hope that this helps.

~Randal Schaffer