Some computer keyboard users afflicted with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) have such pain in their wrists and fingers that they no longer can type. But thanks to voice-operated computers, they don't need to. In fact, some experts say, voice-operated software systems for computers could virtually strike CTS from the list of occupational health threats in the not-too-distant future.
Dragon Systems of Newton, Mass., is one of several companies that markets voice-operated systems for offices - including its own. According to Chris Gardner, Dragon's corporate communications manager, “The system essentially 'learns' to recognize your voice and speech patterns as you use it. You notice a steep improvement in accuracy and performance over the first couple of hours. After that, the system levels off as it nears its maximum potential.” Each system can accommodate multiple users.
The Dragon software is “unique,” says Gardner, in that it eliminates the need for keystroking. “We have the only system that can be used completely hands-free.”
Users do have to make sure the machine “heard” individual words correctly. “Each time you dictate a letter, say, a choice list pops up on the screen,” says Gardner. “If the word is correct, you just keep dictating. If it's incorrect, and the right words is farther down the list, you can just say, for instance, 'choose No. 2,' and then keep dictating.”
At present, the Dragon technology is limited mainly by its reliance on discrete speech. “You have to put a slight pause between each word,” says Gardner, “so you end up dictating at . . . about . . . this . . . speed. It sounds strange, but you learn how to speak that way rather quickly. It's possible to get up to 60, 70 words a minute speaking that way.”
In the next 18 months, he says, “you're going to see PC-based systems that recognize continuous speech, which is the way people talk to each other face to face or on the phone. We're limited mainly by the processing speed and memory requirements of current computers.”
Certainly within the next five to 10 years, many experts say, most people will be getting data and using their computer by speech instead of keyboards.
“It's really going to happen. It works now,” Gardner says. “You walk around our offices, and you see people not using their hands. Voice activation makes you more productive and eliminates the possibility of repetitive stress injuries to your hands. It's the real deal.”