FRAMINGHAM (02/21/2000) - Voice recognition is undeniably cool technology - when it works. But aside from acting as a glorified secretary to which you dictate memos, what good is it?
Dragon Systems Inc. has an answer with NaturallySpeaking Mobile Organizer. The product bundles Dragon's NaturallySpeaking Preferred voice recognition software with NaturallyMobile Recorder, a digital voice recorder. This handy hardware is as light as a mouse, yet can store 40 minutes of dictation, or 120 minutes if you add an additional SmartMedia card. Each message is stored as a separate file, and you can organize messages into folders if, for example, more than one person uses the recorder.
When you connect the recorder to the serial port of your desktop PC using the provided cable, the PC software wakes up the recorder and downloads the sound files to the disk drive. It then translates them into entries for your personal information manager (PIM) program. I used Act! 2000; you can also use Lotus Notes, Microsoft Outlook, the Palm Desktop or GoldMine.
You don't merely dictate text into the recorder. You can use it to schedule meetings or action items, or send e-mail messages. For example, suppose you say: "Send e-mail to Roberta Francis about her Web site period blah, blah, blah." When you get to your computer, Mobile Organizer automatically downloads and interprets the sound file, finds Roberta Francis in your contact database, creates a message with her e-mail address, a subject of "her Web site," and a body of "blah, blah, blah." You can edit the information and train the program to fix its misunderstandings. When you're happy with it, click a button to send the message to the PIM.
The latest version of NaturallySpeaking adapts to the way you speak in part by reading documents you've written. Its Vocabulary Builder utility analyzes the vocabulary and sentence structure you use so it can make better choices.
I had only three complaints about the product. First, the software is very slow to load; it took more than 70 seconds on my 500-MHz Pentium III. If you load it only once a day when you start up your system, that isn't a big issue. But the hardware/software combination also takes quite a while to download speech files and transcribe them on the PC.
The second problem is a perennial one related to speech recognition - it ain't perfect. But if you use the software regularly and train it faithfully when it encounters words it fails to recognize, it does get better.
Finally, although the recorder is light and comfortable to hold, the power and record buttons are awkwardly situated.
Still, speaking to enter data is easier than typing it. NaturallySpeaking Mobile Organize can turn wasted minutes into productive time. This is one of the few Cool Tools I want to keep after the review is written.