Speech-to-Text: Dictation software for Mac OS X
Speech-to-text software, sometimes known as dictation software, is something that lets you talk to the computer in some form and have the computer react appropriately to what you are saying. This is totally different to text-to-speech software, which is software can read out text already in the computer.
Command and Control Software
There are two types of speech-to-text software available. One type is called "command and control" and it lets you speak commands to your computer to control it; hence the name. For example, a command that the computer understands might be, "go to the Apple website" or, "tell me the time". Each command is pre-programmed and the computer will only recognise those commands it's been programmed for; you can't use this software to write an email or use iChat for example.
Command and control software for the Mac - known as "Speakable Items" (or sometimes, confusingly, "spoken commands") - is already built into every OS X computer, although most people don't know about it. You don't need to download, buy, or install anything to get this software to work, just a microphone that works with your computer. The main drawback is that the Speakable Items software programmed for English with a standard American accent, and has significant trouble with any other accent. It doesn't function at all with languages other than English.
Some resources for getting you up and running with Speakable Items include:
- Get Siri-like Functionality on your Mac with Speakable Items (video with full transcript available)
- Apple Support Articles about Speakable Items
The other type of speech-to-text software is usually called "dictation" software. This is the type that lets you write an article like this one, type stuff to your friends in iChat, or type an email. The most common Windows software for speech to text dictation - you've probably heard of it - is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. There is only one dictation-capable speech-to-text software available for OS X which is being updated and developed and it's [msd]. Dictate is the successor to a program named iListen which MacSpeech used to produce.
Like all dictation-capable text-to-speech products, MacSpeech Dictate works very well for some people and very badly for others. Whether it will work for you depends on many things including: how much effort you're willing to put into learning it, how good your microphone is, your age (text to speech usually works less well for children), how much your accent matches what the program expects, and whether your voice changes a lot through the day.
MacSpeech Dictate is also still fairly new software - it was only released on the 15th of February, 2008. In comparison, the premiere speech recognition program for Windows is Dragon NaturallySpeaking which has been in development since the 1980s.
When MacSpeech Dictate was originally released it had several major problems which made it unusable for people with disabilities, but most of these have now been resolved:
- There was no good help functions inside the application - this was rectified in Dictate version 1.3
- It didn't learn from corrections - this was rectified in Dictate version 1.2
- Couldn't spell words out by voice - this was rectified in Dictate version 1.2
- Couldn't request individual key presses (such as command-s or command-option-escape) by voice - this was rectified in Dictate version 1.3
- Couldn't be taught new words, such as names or jargon specific to your profession - this was largely rectified in Dictate version 1.2, although some words still resist training
- There was no way to control the mouse by voice - this was finally rectified in Dictate version 2.0.
I tried using the old iListen program a few years ago and could not get results that were useful, an on-screen keyboard was the best solution at the time. Although MacSpeech Dictate is in its early days as a program, its recognition of my particular voice is hugely better than iListen's was. This is not surprising though, as MacSpeech Dictate's speech recognition engine is based on the same engine used by Windows' Dragon NaturallySpeaking - widely recognised as the best consumer speech recognition available.
[msd] requires the requires Intel-based Macintosh hardware and requires Mac OS X 10.5.6 (Leopard) and higher. Thirteen English dialects/accents are supported, and US and UK spelling options. These are:
- US Spelling
- American - Inland Northern
- American - Southern
- American - Teens
- Southeast Asian
- UK Spelling
- Southeast Asian
Specialised versions - Dictate Medical and Dictate Legal - are available for dictating in these language areas, and Dictate International is now available and recognises speech in French, German, and Italian. MacSpeech have strongly hinted that Spanish language recognition is next on their agenda.
MacSpeech Dictate is a great program for dictation and some computer control, but it is not something that will let you control the computer completely "hands free". For quadriplegic users and others who need full computer control, you will need to supplement Dictate with use of a mouth stick and keyboard, or a program such as SwitchXS for switch access to functions not available by voice. I highly recommend Dictate though, it's part of my suite of accessibility technology and I use it whenever I am able to.
- Ricky Buchanan