Kirk to ship’s computer – the perils of voice control

Recently we have received a spate of enquiries asking about the use of voice control to operate a computer, no doubt inspired by devices such as the Amazon Echo with their Alexis interactive voice control, Windows 10’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri, all of whom make control of these devices seem conversational. It seems the stuff of science fiction. Before we know it we’ll be off colonising Mars!

Back on planet Earth, the truth of the matter is that these voice interfaces are quite limited in terms of what you can do. They can access the internet to locate information, you can find radio stations or request songs, you can even shop online through certain companies and you can order pizza. However, you can’t send an email, dictate a letter for printing, make a Skype call or access your bank account to make a transaction. That is not to say that devices such as the Echo are not worthwhile for their information and entertainment value but they can’t do anything and everything that you might want, which brings us back to the question of voice control to control a computer?

One package which does offer voice control for PC’s is the Dragon Naturally Speaking software. Dragon is very good, understanding a wide range of computer commands as well as allowing dictation. However, it is not one-hundred-per-cent reliable, sometimes failing to perform an instructed command or mis-spelling a word. For someone with a visual impairment, Dragon lacks audio feedback making it difficult for a non-sighted user to complete the initial voice training and making it difficult to confirm when commands and actions have taken place, leading to uncertainty for the user. Unfortunately, JAWS does not tie up well with Dragon to circumvent the audio feedback problem and the one feature where Dragon does provide audio feedback – reading back dictated text – becomes an incoherent jumble when JAWS is also enabled. Dictation is prone to spelling mistakes – differences between audibly identical words being particularly difficult to determine, such as board (as in let’s play a board game) and bored (as in I’m bored with this board game). While the potential is definitely there for voice control, Dragon does not offer the naturalistic voice commands of an Alexis or Siri.

While there is no readily available solution for voice control, looking ahead, should Dragon decide to include full audio feedback, this would be a major step forward for VI computer users. Equally, should Freedom Scientific add voice control to JAWS, this would be a significant advance and probably a more complete solution overall. Of course, Microsoft and Apple might want to consider incorporating full voice control into their operating systems but, until then, it would seem that learning to touch type remains the best solution. Kirk out.