iListen Chats Us Up

Slow typists and carpal tunnel sufferers, rejoice -- your days of keyboard confinement are drawing ever closer to an end. MacSpeech chief evangelist Chuck Rogers recently stopped by the Demo Room to show off iListen 1.0, a new voice-recognition product that's set to go head-to-head with IBM's ViaVoice for the Macintosh, Enhanced Edition.

Although neither voice-recognition program is at the point where users can safely toss the keyboard in the trash, you might be able to get away with stowing it under your desk for the better part of the day.

MacSpeech (603/672-9100, www.macspeech.com ) released iListen 1.0 Monday at its Web site. The software sells for $99 without a headset, and $139 with one. Version 1.1 of the software will ship in early 2001 priced at $129; $169 with a headset. Users who purchase the 1.0 version can upgrade for free.

iListen is fundamentally different from MacSpeech's ListenDo, which relied on Apple's PlainTalk. In contrast, iListen is speaker-dependant, meaning that new users must "train" the software to recognize their individual voices and speech patterns. The setup process takes about 15 minutes, Rogers says. Once it's set up, iListen has a native vocabulary of about 30,000 words, and a background vocabulary of about 300,000 words. Users can customize the software's vocabulary as needed. iListen also sports the ability to launch 150 applications.

The software runs in two modes -- command and dictation. The dictation mode does exactly what one would expect: transcribe your words as you speak them. The command mode can be used to launch, switch, and close applications; jump to Web sites; and edit scripts. iListen features both universal and application-specific commands, which users can edit through the application's script editor.

While direct dictation garners the most attention for voice-recognition programs, it's the ability to launch and control applications that impresses MacSpeech's Rogers. Hunting down and correcting misspellings, for example, can be a time-consuming process with voice-recognition. But launching programs and toggling through open applications without fumbling for a keyboard or mouse can be a real time-saver, Rogers says.

"Once the dust settles, people will find the ability to do voice commands a boon," Rogers says. "It makes my computer seem so much faster to me."

Rogers walked us through an impressive demonstration of iListen, launching numerous applications with speech commands from the command mode. Every command spoken by a user is confirmed by a small feedback palette that floats off to the side of the open application.

The palette helps users turn the microphone on and off, and see the commands they've just spoken. However, I found the bobbing, disembodied head of Lykka -- an animated image of MacSpeech CEO Andrew Taylor's pet Golden Retriever, which floats in the feedback palette -- disconcerting and somewhat creepy. Users can turn Lykka off or switch to a different avatar if they like.

But the walkthrough was proof positive of iListen's power. Chuck dictated roughly 250 words into SimpleText and Word 2001 for us, and in both cases iListen transcribed his words almost instantly. Rogers claims that iListen's lag-time in Microsoft Word is typically under 10 seconds.

Other features include a "what can I say" command, that brings up a menu of voice commands to help users learn the software; a Type Key Helper that allows users to define hot keys; and text macros capable of storing up to 32,000 characters for boilerplate insertions, form letters, and other oft-repeated text strings.

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