Dictate instead of typing

Dragon has heard it all

By Harold Glicken

I have a cold; I sound like a punch-drunk boxer from the Bronx whose nose has been broken too many times. It ain’t pretty. I mention this not to elicit sympathy, but to show how Dragon Professional, the dictation-to-text software, adapted to my voice. I’m using Dragon to write this column.

It’s been a few years since I wrote about Dragon Naturally Speaking. Its accuracy has improved in Version 15, noticeably, even with my stuffed nose and scratchy-throat voice commands.

Here’s how it works.

You choose a dialect, such as British English, in which “color” becomes “colour” when it appears in a Microsoft Word or other Windows document.  I chose the standard U.S. dialect, which in previous versions adapted quite nicely to my normal Minnesota-Scandinavian lilt. A very brief voice-training exercise follows. In earlier versions, voice training could take an hour or more; in the latest version it takes a few minutes. If a voice profile was set up in a previous version of Dragon, it can be imported. I created a new profile so I could measure Dragon’s accuracy with my stuffed sinuses in mind.

A short interactive tutorial hits the high points of the software. Help is contextual, focusing on how-to’s to supplement the initial tutorials.  For example, I learned the hard way that the microphone, in this case a Nuance-approved Plantronics ($25 on Amazon), captures “uh” and “er” and inserts the sounds perfectly into my word-processing software. To avoid those pauses, it’s best to think about what you want to say before you search for the right words. If the right word has to do with quantum physics, Dragon can be taught technical terms by the user inserting them in its dictionary. The technical word can either be spelled out verbally or by typing it directly into Dragon.

A good typist can produce perhaps 50 words a minute – probably with typos. With Dragon, you can dictate 150 words a minute, and it will keep up with you. Typos will be few. As long as you keep talking, Dragon hears your conversation and transcribes it.

Editing commands are easily learned; going back to correct grammatical errors, for example, doesn’t require moving the cursor. Formatting [“bold ‘require’ ”] is straightforward.

Commands are easy to learn. To get to a new paragraph [comma], you need only tell Dragon to insert a paragraph or a new line or end a sentence with a period. It automatically starts the new sentence or paragraph with a capital letter. If you want to change a phrase, just say “scratch that,” which I’m doing very frequently as I write this column [exclamation point]! If Dragon doesn’t understand a word or term and you correct it, the program will learn from its mistake and type it accurately the next time you use the word or term.

Dragon also has a transcription feature that takes material you’ve dictated into a smartphone or voice recorder and types it in a document. A smartphone app, Dragon Anywhere ($15 a month), lets you dictate material as if you were in front of a computer. It then exports the audio into a document.

Other audio – a president’s farewell speech or a podcast, as examples – can be transcribed easily by exporting them into Dragon. A police officer in the field can create custom forms that can be transcribed later, along with a narrative of the case. For example, a man is stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. The officer dictates his name, address, etc., into a form he’s created, along with a description of the event. It saves time back at the precinct.

When I want to launch Word, Dragon does it for me. Composing email is a challenge at first, but soon enough it becomes indispensable. Just by saying “tab,” it will jump from field to field. Boilerplate signatures containing contact information such as email address and phone number can be inserted once Dragon is taught to do so. Calling up a browser is a simple as saying, Launch Chrome.” Directing it to a website involves only dictating where you want to browse. It learned quickly that I spend a lot of time and money on Amazon.

A word of caution: A red virtual microphone icon sits atop the desktop. Click on it, and the mic turns on. But don’t forget to tell it to turn off when you’re not dictating. I received a phone call in the middle of writing this column, and Dragon figured my end of the conversation was something to transcribe, so there was a whole section of the conversation in the middle of the column.

How accurately has it handled dictation for this column? Dragon can only transcribe what it hears. Even with my stuffy nose, it was impressively accurate. The Dragon folks at Nuance, which makes the program, say under normal conditions, it’s almost 99 percent accurate. Except for a few cold-related exceptions, words in my column are spelled correctly. Paragraphs are in the right places. When I recover from my cold, I’ll create a new voice profile, for comparison. About the only thing Dragon can’t do is improve on content. It’s not a miracle-worker.

Dragon Professional costs $300 for either the Mac or Windows version.  Versions for medical settings, lawyers and law-enforcement personnel also are available. A basic edition for home and student use costs $100. More information: www.nuance.com.