Sunday, 15 February 2009

Speech recognition: Almost ready for mobile prime time

I've always wanted to see speech recognition incorporated into mobile devices. Since you don't have a big keyboard when you're on the go, you ought to be able to just talk to your phone and tell it what to do, or dictate memos to it and have it convert them into e-mails or SMS messages. In addition to being incredibly convenient, this would increase the safety of a lot of drivers. It's a spooky fact, but in surveys I've done more than 10 percent of the US population admitted to sometimes sending text messages while driving.

Not smart, not safe.

So, is voice recognition good enough to let you just talk to your mobile device and then send the converted text as a message?

I first asked myself that question a couple of years ago when I bought a copy of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and a small voice recorder. I tried recording weblog posts and other documents while driving, and then brought the recorded sound back to my computer to convert it into text. The result was a disaster. Dragon was unable to keep pace with the recorded sound in the files, and started dropping sentences, paragraphs, and eventually entire pages of spoken text. I was so disgusted, and so disappointed, that I gave up and went back to listening to sports talk radio while I drove.

Recently a newly appointed product manager at Nuance (publisher of Dragon) sent out a survey asking for feedback on the product. Unlike most product managers, she signed the survey form with her own name and with her own e-mail address. Most product managers wouldn't do that because they don't want to be overwhelmed with feedback. I don't know how much feedback she got in general, or how overwhelming it was, but she got a note back from me describing my problems with the product and explaining why I really wasn't satisfied with it.

I didn't expect to get any reply from the company; Nuance has a remarkably restrictive policy on providing technical support unless you pay extra for it. Usually, companies that do that aren't interested in getting any sort of conversation going with their customers. But to my surprise, I got a note from the product manager not only sympathizing with my problems but offering to send me a copy of the latest version of the software and a voice recorder that she said would work well with the software. I wish my weblog address hadn't been in my signature, so I would know if they do this sort of thing for every frustrated user. But anyway I took her up on the offer.

You can see the results here. I dictated this weblog post using the voice recorder, synced it onto my computer for recognition, and then corrected the (few) errors by hand. There are pluses and minuses to the dictation system. The good news is that the program can now keep up with my dictated speech. I no longer lose sentences or paragraphs of text. I'm also surprised with the way the product recognizes trade names, so for instance when I say Home Depot or McDonald's or Nike or Apple or IKEA or Lowes, Dragon gets the names correct and properly capitalized (I didn't have to fix anything in that sentence).

On the other hand it does make mistakes -- the packaging claims about 99% accuracy, which means that you should expect one word in every hundred to be incorrect. My guess is that I'm getting somewhere between 97 and 99% accuracy. That's not bad. In fact, it's pretty darned impressive. But in practice it still means you have to go back and do a lot of corrections.

The training is close to torture: reading aloud a 20-minute excerpt from a Dilbert book while trying to pronounce every word correctly. Later I tried setting up the program without any training, and it worked exactly the same. So my advice is to skip the training.

The software is not great at understanding where punctuation should be placed in the text. I have learned that I have to give grammatical guidance by saying things like "comma," "period," and "new paragraph" in order to make sure that the text will be reasonably well formatted.

If I just speak naturally the text will come out like this making it very difficult for anyone else to read and even making it hard for me to edit without punctuation inserted it is very hard to get tell where a sentence was supposed to end and another one start add in a few wreck cognition errors by the soft wear and the text is not something you would want to send to someone uncorrected

Speaking with punctuation is unnatural, and could be somewhat distracting while driving. I have to think carefully about the text that I'm dictating, and I believe for some people that could cause them not to pay enough attention to what's happening on the road. I think I can do it safely or I wouldn't do it, but it definitely is an issue to consider.

Overall, I think this approach will make me a bit more productive, so I should be able to produce a little bit more weblog content and maybe get some other sorts of things done as well.

So it's nice for me, and I finally feel like I got my money's worth from Dragon. But is the technology ready for broad deployment in mobile devices?

I think the answer is technically yes, but practically no. Mobile devices are casual-use; tasks that require too much commitment or effort just don't get used. Without careful attention to spoken punctuation, the software produces errors and the sort of run-on text you saw above. Even in a short message, I think it's likely that you'd get more mistakes than you'd find acceptable. Correcting those errors on a small screen with no mouse would be tedious at best (it's an annoying task even on a PC).

More importantly, the software is very sensitive to the quality of the sound file coming into it. I believe most phone microphones and headsets wouldn't produce the required quality. You'd probably get better results with a service that just records your speech and has someone in India retype it (such services exist today).

So, the news from the world of voice recognition is hopeful for mobile users but not yet wonderful. The technology is good enough that you can definitely use it as a substitute for typing if you have physical problems. It's also a useful PC productivity tool for someone who generates a lot of text for a living.

However, I think we're not yet quite at the point where you can just talk to your phone and have it reliably transform all of your speech into text. It's getting better, but it's not all the way there yet. For a mobile device, the dream of just talking is still a dream. But I do think it's a dream that's getting closer to reality.


PS: I'd also like to compliment Kristen Wylie, the product manager at Nuance who responded to my message. Take notes, folks, this is the right way to communicate with customers online -- sign your real name, use an address they can respond to rather than a no-replies mailbox, and when someone has a problem help them solve it.


A "focus bringer" is absolutely essential for social cohesion. This day I am quoting from Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road."
Dancing under the stars
Ron Sinor, inventor of the desert dance floor tests it out with Donna Huffer. It withstood 2 weeks of heavy traffic.
The burning Kayak. Diana has much better coverage of this ceremony in her blogsite:
Visitors to our singles ice cream social.

Myself and 6 of my friends decided to tinker with our tribe’s culture–in a big way! With the cooperation of 185 members who attended our Quartzsite, Az gathering, we conducted 7 bold experiments. Amazingly, every one of them was a spectacular success.

1. TEAM HOSTING. Usually one or two people take on the job. This time we split the task 7 ways and found it ridiculously easy.

2. BUILT A DESERT DANCE FLOOR. Yes we did! And for only $70 we engineered a usable smooth surface over the rocks; removing the largest of them, coating with sand, covering with outdoor carpeting and finally securing a taunt tarp over all. Worked like a charm! We danced our boodies off night after night under the stars. Oh so romantic! Our people loved it–we saved a fortune in bar tabs and next year we’ll build a whopper.

3. CONDUCTED A SPEED DATING SESSION. Two long lines of chairs on the desert, —gals and guys face to face—2 minutes each to ask whatever—then on to the next. NO IT’S NOT E-HARMONY scientific matching but it was good enough–fun and enlightening for all.

4. HOSTED A MULTI-GROUP ICE CREAM SOCIAL. Distributed fliers to all singles groups in the area inviting them over. A hundred or so visitors showed up and we mingled in the rain–hopefully spreading good will. A good time was had by all.

5. INVENTED A NEW RITUAL. ‘BURNING KAYAK’ About a third of us carry Kayaks and one whole travel circuit is devoted to kayaking, so we threw out the challenge for someone to build us a sacrificial kayak out of firewood scraps to serve as focus to our ritual. (as in the burning man festival in Nevada) Surprise, a boatright, James, volunteered and astoundingly, had it built in two days; a full sized kayak made of wood and cardboard. Barb and Clair choreographed a new conga line style dance for the ceremony. Then, at the appointed time and to the tune of Proud Mary we danced in a long line in the desert and then round and round the fire as it burned. ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIC–WE ALL GOT LOST IN THE MOMENT.

6. OPENED UP OUR HOMES FOR INSPECTION—RIG TOURS. Those willing, let everyone see the inside of our campers; especially showing off our unique adaptations. The STEALTH TRAILER as always was the object of much curiosity.

7. FORMED AN ISSUES COMMITTEE —to deal with those rare but serious breaches of our code of conduct: RESPONSIBLE, RESPECTFUL, RESPECTABLE.

8. HELD A SADIE HAWKINS DANCE—A minor—frosting on the cake experiment where the ladies were required to do the asking. They got the hang of it quickly and so did we—fun!

RANDY PHILOSOPHIZES: All of us come to consciousness within a particular culture (shared beliefs, values, practices) and live within it like fish within water, hardly noticing it. Visit another culture—go to Mexico or visit the Amish and suddenly you become conscious of your own. Cultures often imprison peoples mind and spirit like Mormonism or Jehovas Witness or Islam. I escaped my fundamentalist Baptist culture and find life incredibly richer for having done so—I never danced till I was 27—a bit of Baptist repression.

My mobile tribe is young and our culture is still forming----a great opportunity to help create a brand-new one. Some years ago I laid out our first camping circuit, a string of short hop gatherings and was delighted that it caught on and is now part of our culture. Another of our members organized a dance rally that also caught on and is an exciting annual fixture. Still another started a kayaking circuit that is now standard.

I’m convinced we can create a culture that fits us rather than adjusting ourselves to it----and that we can do it very quickly. One or more of our experiments at Quartzsite might become part of our culture. How sweet to escape an unsuitable culture and find a suitable one. How double sweet to participate in shaping it!

Sunday, 8 February 2009


Pia visiting me in my rig. When standing, her head just touches my ceiling. Her name is a shortened derivative from a word meaning "peaceful soul."
Only I seem to be sweating in the Somewhere Bar, Bouse, Az. Her energy and stamina are legendary--often dancing every dance.
Pia shows off her modest trailer--22ft and cozy. She has no yen for more.
The world famous Desert Bar---remote---solar powered juke joint--open only on the weekends.
Pia poses reluctantly where couples often marry. It's an odd "church"--no congregation and only one wall---an addendum to the desert bar.

First, a note to my readers: I’ve been busy living! It interferes with writing and vice versa. Here’s my latest adventure.

Now and again you meet someone so sparklingly different that they alter the way you live; like a close passing comet jostles the orbit of a small planet. It’s happened to me these past two weeks.

I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with an exotic, solitary, vagabond lady; so tall her head brushes my ceiling; so slender you think of a racehorse. Her home is Switzerland where she works just long enough to accumulate traveling funds, then returns to the American West for adventure. Flying into Amarillo, Texas, she retrieves her truck and trailer from a good friend in Hartley, Texas who keeps them travel ready, then she is off indulging her whims.

One such whim was to be a cowgirl. Driving up to a remote Nevada ranch, she asked for a chance to be a cowgirl-- and got it—rounded up cattle—she loved it!

To recount more of her exploits would impress you but distract from my purpose. You get the idea—she is daringly bold–and did I mention, stunningly beautiful.

Forget any romantic connection. I quickly grasped that was not in the cards, but somehow she chose to spend time with me–perhaps because I’m a good listener and everyone wants to be understood. (the oracle lady explained that it was because I showed interest in her story) Then again, perhaps its because I too can become wild on the dance floor–as she does. Whatever, I’m grateful.

Here’s a sample of her style: We go for a walk in the desert 7 miles from Quartzsite, Az; On a whim she suggests we walk all the way to town–cross country. My macho kicked in and damned if we didn’d make it cross deep gullies and all. Once there, she’s hungry and orders a two pound megaburger with fries. The waitress suggested she might not be able to eat so much. She simply stood up, unfolding her amazonian frame. The waitress said “OH” and handed in the order. SHE ATE IT ALL!

Another sample of her style: We go to the famous Desert Bar, a converted gold mine, far in the boondocks beyond Parker, Az; the band is playing rock and roll; I release her hands so I can do my solitary wiggles. I think she took it as a challenge–show me what ya got–because she suddenly shifted gears doing a dance I had never seen before; bouncing horse-like, whirling like a ballerina, knifing between other dancers around the full perimeter, rocking in perfect rhythm to the music–as seductive as Salome dancing before Herod–absolutely mesmerizing! Jaws dropped all round. Even the band members were stunned–reluctant to end the song. No one noticed my feeble wiggles–I didn’t care! Like others, my heart expanded to witness such living joy. My friends later joked that she had demonstrated the real “Dance of Testosterone.” (My best known poem)

Another sample of her style: We’re at a dance and she asked me which lady in the crowd I fancied. I indicated a curvy blond trapped, it seemed, by a watchful partner. She immediately broke between them whisking the guy happily away, leaving the lady of my fancy free to dance with me.

Another sample: The scene is the Yacht club, Quartzsite’s primo watering hole. In walks a town big shot with his enterage. He spots the beautiful lady and tells her he will dance with her if she will remove her hat. Barely turning to acknowledge the mogul, she pleasantly responded: “no thanks.” He is so stung by this rare rejection that he leaves immediately. Wealth does not impress her.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a different breed of cat that crossed my path. Here is a person blessed with dazzling beauty–even at 50 plus years, strangely unsuited or unwilling for mating, never married, driven it seems to eternal adventuring. She affects all she engages–pleasantly or sometimes painfully as those who grasp at her soon learn.

With those who sense her rhythm, she will dance the dance of the moment. She treats with special respect unlovely people. I watched her engage a bearded outcast, waking up his downcast spirit.

She lives frugally so she may adventure widely; camping alone in the desert. ( Currently a quarter mile distant from others in her modest 22 foot trailer.

I occasionally encounter solitary wandering women such as the one in outlaw canyon. This one is markedly different because she moves toward, not away from the drama of life. She enjoys her body, lives sustainably, responds to her fascinations. She does not claim to have solved life’s mysteries–is not religious–but has an intuitive value system that guides her nicely down the road.

I’ve moved on and so has she, though we remain in contact. I live and dance more spontaneously for having this comet (with a beautiful tail) pass through my orbit. She is living proof of the energy released when we let go of ego, wanting and defensiveness. A master teacher in not clinging or grasping at life’s gifts.....I just flashed on an old poem of mine:
........These pleasures like the waters will
Brush us by then down the hill.
I let them go without delay,
Millions more are on the way.