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My office is not a starship, or why voice recognition is not for me

Joe Kissell | Aug. 27, 2013
Speech recognition may be the technology of the future, but Joe Kissell finally realized it was not the technology for him.

For most of my life, I dreamed of interacting with my computer the way the crew of the Enterprise did on Star Trek. No keyboard or mouse—just tell the computer what information you need or what task you want it to accomplish, and the right thing happens. Twenty years ago, when Apple released the Macintosh Quadra 840AV (with an extra signal processor to facilitate speech recognition), I thought my dream was well on its way to coming true.

But over the last two decades, every time I've tried working with a voice-based interface—whether it's Apple's long-standing Speakable Items (now in the Accessibility pane of System Preferences), the Dictation feature introduced in Mountain Lion (see the Dictation & Speech preference pane), or a third-party tool such as Nuance's Dragon Dictate (4 of 5 rating)—I encountered a problem I couldn't get past: my coworkers.

I wasn't concerned about their conversations interfering with the accuracy of speech recognition; that problem has technological solutions. The issue was that talking to my computer all day invariably distracted people nearby who were trying to concentrate on their own work. (Never was this more true than when working in the home-office space I shared with my wife.) And for my part, I disliked the ease with which others could eavesdrop on everything I dictated.

Now that I have an entire home office to myself, complete with a functional door, I imagined that I could finally start talking to my computers with impunity. But I made a bewildering discovery that foiled my plans: My home office is not a starship. It turns out that voice control is a poor fit for the type of work I do here on Earth, especially given the design of OS X. And even the isolated and technologically feasible task of dictating text (which should be a great fit for an author) is unsuited to my personality type and work style.

'Click that gear-shaped thingy. No, the other one!'
The Apple TV was designed to be operated by a 7-button remote control. The iPad was designed to be operated by finger taps and gestures. And the Mac was designed with the assumption that every user will have a pointing device (such as a mouse or trackpad) and a keyboard. A mouse would be useless with an Apple TV or iOS device. On the other hand, although Macs can be made to work with touchscreens (after a fashion), the experience is awkward because fingers don't have the precision of mouse pointers. Operating systems work best with the input and output systems they were designed for.

Sure, you can control some aspects of a Mac with your voice, but the problem is that this capability was an afterthought, not a fundamental design choice. Many activities can't be controlled by voice at all, and some require effort disproportionate to the task. If you ever have to tell your Mac to "click a button" or "press a key," for example, it's obvious that voice control is putting a round peg in a square hole.


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