Microsoft has been researching speech recognition for more than fifteen years. It has released enterprise products like Speech Server for telephony systems, and built rudimentary voice commands into Windows Mobile so that a woman whispers “Say a command!” in my ear when I push the wrong button on my phone. (A striking invitation but she never does anything interesting.) Bill Gates gave a speech last week where he predicted that within five years more Internet searches will be conducted using speech recognition than a keyboard.
He might have a point. Windows Vista has a new generation of speech technology built in, waiting for you to discover it. It’s drop-dead easy to set up and its accuracy is startling – reportedly as high as the latest expensive version of Dragon Naturally Speaking, the only competitor still standing after years of disappointing products.
Vista’s speech recognition can take dictation in documents and e-mail, as well as switch between programs and perform almost any command in almost any program. There are a number of special commands but they’re surprisingly intuitive (“Click File“, “Switch to Outlook“, “Scroll down”).
You’ll need a decent microphone or headset; a USB microphone or headset is highly recommended. Those are inexpensive – for example, Logitech’s Clear Chat Comfort USB headset is typically 35 to 40 dollars.
This article has a walkthrough of the speech recognition setup and features, and Microsoft has more information and tutorials on this page. The accuracy and flexibility is pretty remarkable. I’m having a lovely time making the cursor fly around without touching the keyboard or mouse. Give it a try!