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Speak the MacSpeech, I Pray You

With the release of its much-anticipated iListen dictation software, MacSpeech, Inc. has at long last fired a real salvo in its hitherto mostly verbal rivalry with IBM’s ViaVoice. Although the two programs are outwardly similar – each initially presents a series of windows where you adjust your microphone and train your voice model by reading some stories, and is then represented by a small global floating window where you turn the microphone on and off – they are marked by radically different philosophies. ViaVoice centers around its own voice-driven word processor, SpeakPad; you can dictate into a few other applications through plug-ins or scripting, but this feature is slow and unreliable. (See "Talk Is Cheap: ViaVoice Enhanced Edition" in TidBITS-544.) iListen, on the other hand, has no word processor; you just dictate into any application. This magic is accomplished through the same macro power that characterized MacSpeech’s earlier ListenDo (see "Bossing Your Mac with PlainTalk" in TidBITS-545); essentially, iListen hooks into your Macintosh at a low level and acts as a ghostly typist at an invisible keyboard.



This approach has its advantages. First, iListen comes with all the macro power of ListenDo (except for ListenDo’s ability to let you call out names of menus and menu items), so in addition to typing through dictation, you can tell your Mac to start up applications, close windows, click the mouse, and so forth – and these commands are triggered through iListen’s internal speech recognition engine, not PlainTalk, so they work much more reliably. Second, iListen has a lighter feel then ViaVoice. SpeakPad is a clunky program, a substandard word processor whose files are huge (because the program is recording your voice so that it can respond to your corrections by improving its voice model later) and slow to save. iListen, on the other hand, basically just types; what you’re actually working in is your favorite word processor, email program, outliner, or whatever – in other words, you’re in some program that you actually like. So, while ViaVoice feels like a huge application that has taken over your computer, iListen feels more like a huge system extension adding dictation functionality to your computer behind the scenes.

Since iListen can’t edit your document or improve its internal models on the fly, you’re always essentially dictating a first draft, in the expectation of using hands and keyboard to fix mistakes. But that’s not such a terrible thing; you just chatter away carelessly, and clean up later, or even at the same time, in a sort of voice-and-hands partnership. More of a problem is that there’s no access to the program’s internal vocabulary; ViaVoice lets you enter a word and train its pronunciation, but iListen has no such ability, so it can’t learn any expressions it doesn’t already know, or even adapt to your quirks of pronunciation. (For example, I have no way to let iListen know that I say "neither" as "NYE-ther.") A spelling mode in part makes up for this, but in most cases it isn’t worth using; since you’ll be cleaning up manually anyway, you’ll probably just let iListen’s mistakes stand during the first pass.

MacSpeech has promised a future free upgrade that will include a vocabulary trainer, the capability to improve the voice model by correcting errors, and the missing speakable menus macro feature. Meanwhile, MacSpeech was probably wise to release this version now; it gave them something to sell over the holiday season and show at next week’s Macworld Expo. Besides, even if you think of iListen in its present state as more of a demonstration than a finished, full-featured program, it’s a great demonstration, and very definitely usable.

To be sure, iListen takes up a healthy chunk of RAM (about 60 MB), and does bog the computer down a bit, plus starting it up and switching modes can be slow; and it probably isn’t without bugs – I think it reconfigures my Energy Saver settings incorrectly, for example, and it seems not to work at all in Microsoft Word on my machine. But the speech recognition engine is astoundingly nimble, easily able to match my normal pace of dictation, and quite decently accurate, especially considering that so far I’ve only read three of the dozen or so training stories that come with it (you’re urged to do all of them). And even ViaVoice isn’t perfectly accurate, after all, though my copy, now trained to a fare-thee-well, does make vastly fewer errors than iListen. Thus, you may well prefer iListen despite its missing pieces, because it’s so pleasant and easy, it’s available in any program, and it doubles as a voice-driven macro program. You won’t have a totally hands-free experience, but you can use your voice to order your computer about and to get a first draft of your words down on virtual paper, and that might be all you really need.

iListen requires Mac OS 9, a Macintosh with a PowerPC G3 or G4 processor, and 128 MB RAM. It costs $130 but is presently $100 if downloaded from MacSpeech’s Web site (a 40 MB download, which takes up about 130 MB installed); there’s a $30 rebate for ViaVoice users. iListen also requires a noise-cancelling microphone (not included; about $50).


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