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Voice-Recognition Technology Comes of Age

Look, Ma. No hands! New software for home and auto could keep you from ever lifting a finger

By Mike Hammer | May 23, 2012

When we were kids, our entire knowledge base of voice-recognition technology came from Star Trek. While we all wanted a communicator of our own, we never really thought that would happen in our lifetime. Now Captain Kirk–style flip phones are more history than science fiction and voice-recognition software is one of the hottest trends in technology.

It’s been a long time coming. Back in 1952, pioneering Bell Lab researchers developed a primitive system that could recognize phone numbers spoken into a receiver. The technology was adapted for telephone banking in the 1970s then for personal computers a decade later. But those systems were always poor at best. While the technology was slow to develop even through the last decades of the 20th century, it’s now one of the hottest segments of technology. And the developments are happening so fast it’s hard to keep up.

The latest wave of voice-activation systems can recognize individual voices, foreign accents and even quirky speech patterns. Today this once-futuristic technology is more intuitive and portable than ever and can be easily managed to assist with your daily activities. So whether you’re in front of the computer or behind the wheel, in an airport or lying in bed, the following apps and software can help you dictate your memoirs, listen to music, find a restaurant or check on traffic without having to lift a finger.

Domestic Help

Dragon Dictate: Say hello to a simple-to-use, voice-activated virtual secretary that’s compatible with any computer. With just a USB-wired headset, a wireless Bluetooth headset or your machine’s built-in microphone, Dragon will transcribe your dictation into any text program (such as Microsoft Word) or even fill out forms on the Internet.

Impressively accurate, Dragon can even recognize non-American accents. Self-correction is simple: You need only say “correct,” and the program will offer a list of options. Best of all: Its intuitive operating system then “learns” from those corrections and eliminates incorrect options when voice commands are repeated in the future.

One user, an advice columnist, says Dragon has reduced her writing time by at least 25 percent, and that while she still has to proofread the copy carefully, its accuracy is about 75 percent — “better than my typing,” she notes. And the latest version for Apple (2.5) comes with a free app that turns your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch into a wireless mic, transcribing your words into text messages, emails or notes that can be stored in your smartphone note files.

A downloadable app is available for Mac and Windows or you can purchase installation disks ($149 or $179 for a digital download, $199 for disks).

A Really Smart Phone

Samsung Rogue
: With this phone, equipped with VoiceMode technology, you can have your message translated into text by speaking into the phone. The voice-recognition software also allows you to manage your address book, access playlists, launch and use different apps and make phone calls with spoken commands. ($115).

Be the Smartest One in the Room

ChaCha Answers
: Why waste time navigating the digital universe for answers when you can just ask your phone? Download this app, speak your query into the phone, and human responders will send an answer almost instantly via text. When tested by the mobile industry research firm MSearchGroove, ChaCha scored an impressive 94.4 percent accuracy score — higher than Google’s version of the same app or your average Jeopardy champ. Best part: it’s free.

Manage Your 'Net' Returns

Vlingo
: If you can’t afford a real secretary, it’s time to get a virtual one. This free app does your verbal bidding for you, from updating your social media status to sending a text message to surfing the Web. Once you’ve downloaded this app, just speak commands like “find Main Street” or “access my Facebook account” into your phone and Vlingo will audibly respond to your verbal command. It works on virtually any smartphone platform.

To Communicate With Aliens

Jibbigo Voice Translation
: This two-way translation smartphone app “listens” as you speak in one language and then translates your words into another. Compatible with Android and iPhone platforms, the program currently offers eight different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean and Tagalog ($4.99 and up).

To Keep From Getting Lost


Wazer
: This free social navigation app connects drivers by crowdsourcing real-time road information via Twitter and from other Wazer users. Verbal requests will get you traffic updates and the location of construction hazards and speed traps. Designers understood that using your phone’s GPS can dramatically decrease battery life, so this app automatically turns off after 10 minutes of idle time. 

To Be Your Butler

Siri Assistant
: Less a secretary than a virtual advance man, this baby takes voice direction to locate restaurants, make reservations, book tickets or rental cars and so much more. Siri, which Apple calls “the intelligent assistant to get things done just by asking,” is now available exclusively on the iOS5 phone (at no charge). Siri can also respond to requests as conversational as “Find me a Greek restaurant in Greenwich Village.” Now, if only your kids were so responsive.

To Keep From Crashing Your Car

DriveSafe.ly
: It’s not just teens who sometimes can’t stop texting, and we all know what a hazard texting in the car is. DriveSafe.ly to the rescue. This smartphone app for Androids, BlackBerrys and iPhones speaks your text messages aloud as they come in and allows you to reply simply by speaking into the app. It can even read and translates “text-speak,” like LOL and BRB ($13.95).

For a Truly Moving Musical Experience

•SYNC AppLink
: Now you can talk to your car and actually have it respond to your commands. Available on select Ford vehicles, the SYNC® AppLink is an in-dash program that lets you use select apps such as Pandora, iHeart Radio and Slacker for music; Stitcher SmartRadio, ESPN Radio, ABC News and 150 other stations for news. Available on the 2011–12 Fiesta, 2012 Mustang, Fusion, Expedition, Super Duty and F-150. Price: free, if you shell out $25,000 on the car.

Mike Hammer, former editor of Stuff and Maxim magazines, has covered the gadget and technology industry for years.