I’ve been a longtime and enthusiastic user of dictation software, beginning with Voice Power Pro on Mac OS 9 back in the mid-late ’90s. VP Pro was marketed by British software company One Stop that bought Articulate Systems’ pioneering PowerSecretary for Mac when AS merged with then Windows-Oriented Dragon NaturallySpeaking developer Nuance in 1998. VP Pro was pretty lame by today’s voice software standards. It offered discrete speech voice recognition, which meant you…….had…….to……..dictate……like…….this in order for the speech engine to guess what you were saying. It was also agonizingly slow, and accuracy was mediocre, but it was way better than no dictation software for someone like myself battling typing pain.
I soon migrated to IBM ViaVoice, which was much better than VP Pro, especially after the OS X version came along in the early ’00s, but sadly IBM lost interest and stopped developing ViaVoice, terminating support in 2007.
Meanwhile, Andrew Taylor and a team of colleagues, mostly Articulate Systems’ Mac unit alumni, had launched a new company called MacSpeech to develop a new application based on the Philips speech engine called iListen for the PowerPC Mac and OS 9. iListen could transcribe normal conversational speed dictation and could dictate into most any application with a text field. I used iListen from its beta days, and while the OS X version of ViaVoice in particular was faster and had better accuracy than iListen OS 9 and early OS X builds, MacSpeech was left last man standing when IBM abandoned the Mac voice software market. In the late ’00s, MacSpeech switched from then Philips speech engine to Nuance’s superior Dragon NaturallySpeaking engine, with things coming full circle in 2010 with Nuance acquiring MacSpeech and taking over development and marketing of what came to be called Dragon Dictate for Mac, which is unequivocally the best dictation/voice control software I’ve ever used.
Apple built a Cloud-based Dictation feature into OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion that works similarly to Nuance’s free Dragon Dictation app for iOS, accessing a remote server over the Internet for transcription muscle, but the Dragon Dictate remains the state of the art for serious dictation users. Nuance technology also reportedly under-girds Apple’s iOS Siri speech recognition technology.
Interestingly, on the weekend, The New York Post’s Kaja Whitehouse And Mark DeCambre reported that a rumor circulating on Wall Street that billionaire Carl Icahn, who recently purchased a “large position” in Apple, may be angling to act as a matchmaker between Apple and Nuance Communications, in which he recently increased his stake to 16.9 percent. Whitehouse and DeCambre cite hedge-fund consultant Charles Gradante, estimating that Apple could buy Nuance for $7 billion, which would hardly put a dent Apple’s massive reserve of cash.
As for voice control, Macworld’s Joe Kissell says that for most of his life, he dreamed of interacting with his computer the way the crew of the Enterprise did on Star Trek. No keyboard or mouse — just tell the computer what information you need or what task you want it to accomplish, and the right thing would happen.
However, he says that over the last two decades, every time he’s tried working with a speech-based interface – whether it’s Apples long-standing Speakable Items (now in the Accessibility pane of System Preferences), the Dictation feature introduced in Mountain Lion (see the Dictation & Speech preference pane), or a third-party tool such as Nuance’s Dragon Dictate, he’s encountered a problem he couldn’t get past: namely his coworkers.
Ergo: talking to his computer all day invariably distracted people nearby who were trying to concentrate on their own work, and he disliked the ease with which others could eavesdrop on everything he dictated.
Kissell elaborates on why here:
As a veteran dictation software fan and user, I agree wholeheartedly. Voice dictation and control are great when you’re all by yourself with your computer or iPad, not so much when others are within earshot. It distracts them and it distracts me to the point that I’m rendered incapable of cleanly coherent and nuanced (pun intended) articulation of what I’m thinking.
Kissell reports that the now has an entire home office to himself, complete with a functional door, and had imagined that he could finally start talking to his computers with impunity, only to make the bewildering discovery that his home office is not a starship, and moreover it turns out that voice control is a poor fit for the type of work he does here on Earth, especially given the design of OS X, and unsuited to his personality type and work style.
I also find that my creative flow works best when typing or writing longhand, which I still do for rough composition quite a bit, and of course that is one area where dictation software comes into its own. Ergo: it’s a lot less tedious transcribing my marginally readable handwritten draft scrawl, usually with lots of cross-outs, interpolations, and tiny marginal notes, from ink-on-paper to editable computer text using voice dictation than by straight manual copy typing.
As noted, I consider Nuance’s $200 Dragon Dictate for Mac to be the current ne plus ultra in dictation technology on the Mac but I’m actually more inclined these days to just open Nuance’s free Dragon Dictation app on the iPad. While the latter is less accurate, slower, and far less powerful and less versatile that the $199 Dragon Dictate for Mac application, it has the advantages of slickness, spontaneity and easy portability, if you don’t already have dictation software, the price is certainly right, and for some reason I find it more informally comfortable talking to the iPad while lounging wherever than I do talking to my computer wearing a headset and sitting in a task chair. I can just grab the iPad and dictate a few thoughts in real time as they occur, rather than sitting down at the computer and waiting for Dictate to start up and load my voice profile, which takes at least a couple of minutes on my not-terribly-speedy 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook. And you can do it anywhere you have Internet connectivity. You also don’t have to train the iOS Cloud app by reading it training stories, although the requirement for training is much less onerous with Dragon Dictate for Mac that it used to be with MacSpeech Dictate and iListen, especially the early versions with the Philips speech engine.
Dragon Dictation is powered by Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking engine that allows you to easily speak text content. Nuance claims using Dragon Dictation is up to five times faster than typing on the idevice’s keyboard, which I won’t dispute, especially being a 50 word-per-minute max non-touch typist.
In terms of accuracy, the Dragon Dictation app is actually pretty impressive, considering there is, as noted no training to recognize your voice involved. It’s not up to Dictate’s standard, but it’s surprisingly good.
Personally, I’ve never bothered with connecting a hard wired headset for dictation on the iPad, which Nuance recommends for best performance. I just use the built-in microphone, holding it fairly close to my mouth as specified, and speak directly into it; a mode Nuance recommends as second-best, but it’s worked surprisingly well for me.
You do have to be within wireless Internet range in order for the app to work, since the actual voice processing is done in the Cloud on Nuance’s powerful mothership software, and not in the idevice itself. That’s an observation, not a complaint. Remote processing is completely necessary given the prodigious processing power required for voice recognition and transcription, and the limitations of idevice hardware.
Processing goes reasonably quickly. A niggle is that if you’re inclined to pause and think a bit in the midst of dictating, the app will often cut you off in mid-sentence, and in general has a mind of its own about when to pause and process automatically, usually after a couple of typical-length paragraphs, or when you pause speaking, even though I have the auto end-of-speech setting turned off in the Settings.
It’s not a major issue, and you can also initiate processing manually, but you do have to keep an eye on the screen to monitor what’s going on; harder to do when you’re holding the mic close to your mouth.
To compose a message or passage of prose on your idevice, launch the Dragon Dictation application. Tap the red recording button that appears in the middle of the screen to initiate the voice recognition process, and while the application is recording, speak your message.
As you speak, a graphic level meter will monitor and display the audio input levels.
If you finish before the app automatically switches to processing mode, either tap the “Done” button (if you’re using an iPhone and iPod touch) or just anywhere on the screen (if you’re on an iPad). You can also set auto end-of-speech setting to ON to detect end of speech. Tap the red recording button again to resume dictating. Dragon Dictation on iPhone will also auto-save dictated text on the scratchpad, which can be accessed after accepting an incoming call.
A word to the wise about security of dictated text in the iOS Dragon Dictation app. It’s less than perfect. Or at least has been in the past. A couple of times I lost 20 minutes or so of dictation when I was interrupted, carried the iPad with me to another location and apparently switched to another app inadvertently. When I went back to Dragon Dictation in both instances, my text had disappeared and I was back to square one. Moral: always Select All and Copy before moving around with freshly dictated text in Dragon Dictation, and preferably paste it into a more stable parking spot such as PlainText or the iPad’s NotePad app.
To edit transcribed text, tap the word you want to correct. When you touch the word, a drop-down list of alternative suggestions will appear. To correct a phrase, drag your finger to adjacent words until the entire phrase is highlighted. Dragon Dictation supports entering new text or editing text already dictated by tapping the keyboard icon. Or if you prefer, you can record a new phrase by pressing the red record icon while the original phrase is highlighted. The phrase will be replaced with the new phrase you speak.
iPad users can view and manage text for multiple documents in Dragon Dictation Notes and use it in landscape or portrait mode. Your dictated text is automatically saved in Notes (at least theoretically — see caveat above), where you can review and edit any Note listed by clicking on it.
There are several options for exporting dictated text from Notes. First select the Note you want to send and tap the icon on the top right of the screen and select how you want to send your message from the following options:
Email: Launches your email client and inserts your composed text into a new email message. This Note will be deleted from Dragon Dictation Notes. That’s one of the few criticisms I have of this app. Before I became wary, I lost passages of dictated text twice when Dragon Dictation deleted the Note on “Send Email,” but for whatever reason the message didn’t get sent. Consequently, I’ve resorted the alternate mode of copying the content of the Note I want to email via the clipboard to the iOS Notes app first as insurance before attempting an email send. Sending email from the Notes app seems fail-safe, and Notes doesn’t “helpfully” delete your data until you tell it to. Data copied to the clipboard does remain in Dragon Dictation Notes until you delete it.
I like this little app so much and find it a major contributor to my being able to use the iPad as an efficient production tool