Talking to the Dragon

Nowadays I sit down to my PC and say “Take a letter Miss Dragon”. Miss Dragon is my unapproachable, but highly dependable assistant in the office. I employ her skills to do my typing, while I get on with the creative act of thinking up what to say. To say she has revolutionized my working day is no understatement.

I am, of course, describing my recent purchase of the amazing Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0 dictation software.

Like many people these days I am a pretty competent typist, I can even touch-type with all my fingers whilst looking at the screen. However I still find that my creative flow is ruined when typing; I often have to compose a sentence in my head, then try to remember it as I type and the result is just not as fluid as I’d like.

What I wanted, especially for longer items, such as reports, articles and, nowadays, blog entries, is a way of dictating directly to the computer (or via a hyper-efficient assistant who would not need paying!)

Now, I’ve been aware of voice to text software for some years; I even had a copy of Dragon Dictate 4.0 which came free with some magazine or other back in the 90s,, which worked pretty well but was slow and not accurate enough for my needs. I had my doubts about how effective voice to text software might ever be and left it at that.

I might have carried on being a frustrated typist if I hadn’t I met a most interesting gentleman when my train broke down one evening.

Having moaned about the state of the transport system for a little while we began chatting and it turned out that my co-moaner was a test-pilot who worked on the RAF’s new fighter, the Typhoon. He told me that many of its systems are now voice commanded, which, given the unsuitability of the high stress cockpit environment rather amazed me. He assured me that voice recognition technology had moved on considerably since I’d tried that free magazine disc!

Armed with that thought, I decided it might be time to try voice recognition software once again. So I searched about and settled on Dragon naturally 9.0 Preferred, from Nuance, which I ordered from Amazon UK.

I use a Windows XP machine with a reasonable amount of RAM (I think around 1.5Gb) and a fairly full hard drive, so I was prepared to be less than impressed if the software needed lots of performance to operate.

Loading the software was a doddle. I did it while watching TV and while it took a little while, it needed no effort on my part – I didn’t miss any of the plot on the TV programme.

Once loaded the ‘work’ begins. Unlike a Typhoon you won’t have to spend weeks and weeks teaching the system to understand you under a range of difficult high-G combat contitions.

However you are expected to spend a little time (I think it took me an hour) to let the system learn the characteristics of your voice. You just have to read out various bits of text (you can select the type of think you’d prefer to read) while it learns what you sound like.

That is followed by a series of short tutorials that combine learning the various commands and training the software, so it is pretty painless.

Then you are off and running. Initially I found Dragon Naturally 9.0 was accurate around 70%-80% of the time, which sounds a bit dull, but by being diligent and being sure to correct any errors, rather than just erasing errors, I now find, after a week’s use, that the software’s accuracy is around 90% and improving each time we work together.

Would I recommend this to anyone? Yes, wholeheartedly. I have found, to my surprise, that my writing style changes when I dictate. New words and phrases come to mind and I can develop ideas much more thoroughly than by typing alone.

I have begun playing with dictating to my MP3 recorder and getting the software to transcribe the recordings for me. So far the results are encouraging rather than earth shattering, but I haven’t put much effort in to it yet and I expect the results to be more impressive once I’ve had a little more practice.

The price of around £100 or so is just fine with me. It is a serious business tool and one I would be loathe to give up. Rather than shop around for the lowest price (and there are some very dodgy looking deals out there!) I plumped for Amazon and was pleased with the speed of delivery and the product itself.

So when considering your next assistant, forget the blond bombshell and go for the Dragon!

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