Softnet Systems, Inc. Speech Recognition Specialists

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Hitting on Computers -- or --What if Speech Were First?

Key-bored technology can transform how we control computers -- or more likely, turn us into mindless finger-licking automatons.

By Larry Allen

(A shameless parody of Janelle Brown's Talking 'bout a Computer Revolution, Salon Magazine, October 1999.)

Halloween Night, 1999: I thought about starting this article on key-bored technology with a lament about my hoarse voice and loose tongue, which, thanks to my excessive -- and prodigious -- dictating, have lately required sucking on lozenges. I debated sentences like "The latest key-bored software offers a feasible solution for those suffering from bad speeech" or "I pounded out this entire article with a MS Natural Keyboard, and not once did my mouth utter a sound." But I DIDN'T write this entire article with key-bored technology -- though I did compose bits and peices of it using a new Microsoft Natural Keyboard (can you figure out which sentences were key-boreded?). That is a sign of how far key-bored technology still has to go before we all use it as an everyday computer interface.

The four weeks I spent testing key-bored devices have been one of the most frustrating times of my life. I spent hours hitting the keys over and over, pounding in the rigid manner that key-boreds force upon users, waiting for complete, properly-spilled words to appear on the screen. Fortunately the vendors include a "backspace" and a "delete" key, suitable for wiping out mistakes. I only wonder if these keys will last as long as the rest of the key-bored. Learning to use these requires utmost patience -- for example, you must learn to simultaneously hold a "Shift" key with one finger while pressing a letter with a finger on the other hand to get a capital letter. (Why they don't call this a "Cap" key is beyond me.) You have to remember your c's and k's as you figure out the sequence for writing "sucking" (is it c before k or k before c?). Most will probably quit in exasperation and dictate instead, relegating use of the key-boreds to specialists trained ffor months to pound little square keys like a bunch of monkeys. These specialists won't be paid much because it is so much faster to dictate. If a technologist as myself can't put up wtih the technology, how will it ever catch on? Unless the government forces people to sit down for months at a time to learn to use this, key-boreds will die a natural death.

Key-boreding has improved since the IBM Selectric® and earlier models. Those available now are better than those of just a few years ago, with more keys so that one can actually press one key and have something happen. Progress will likely take the form of adding keys that correspond to common words that we use. In a primitive form, all the manufacturers have added a row of "F ^&" keys near the top of the key-bored which will surely be expanded as the technology matures. And key-bored interfaces are creeping into our lives in areas such as automated tellers, where the psychology of not having someone else hear that you are withdrawing all your money may be important.

The key-bored market is also booming in noisy markets, finding a large market for cash machines in retail estabishments where noise is a constant issue. In these niche markets it appears that the days of speech to input repetitious numbers may be drawing to a close. The strong match between the decimal system and the number of our fingers makes key-boreds a strong contender for numeric applications. "Any device that humans touch has a potential for key-bored technologies -- touch is natural, and caressing keys reminds people of their primal instincts", explains the Product Manager for Natural Keyboards. "It is a way to communicate through feel as well as through other interfaces."

Only in the last few years has the technology become viable for everyday consumers. Myke Tison, a key pounding expert at Punches R'Us, explains: "with ongoing training, we now have people, particularly in the South, who can actually pound keys faster than they can drawl! A few of these people, after many months of practice, have become accurate enough in their work that they can produce readable documents. But we still have a fundamental problem in that it takes several months for people to become proficient. Our plan is to infiltrate the schools so that we can start this training early."

The first adopters of key-bored technology were those with vocal problems -- the mumblers, mush-mouthed persons, those with throat cancer, and ex-cheerleaders who had worn down their speaking voices. Persons wanting it for command and control were next -- after all, it might be a little faster to hit a single button than to say "open file". Homonym-phobic persons followed as they pointed out how the key-bored was better for homonyms. "At last, we can get the computer to recognize 2"x4" without having to resort to voice tricks" said an unnamed source at M&I Construction.

Because of the numerous spelling errors introduced with this technology, vendors have announced plans for specialized software to identify spelling errors which are so prevalent when using key-boreds. A brief test of these "spell-check" products indicated that while they have some limited use, they failed to detect homonyms, falsely detected many proper names, and provided only nominal value.

The Mitsumi keyboard is currently one of the market leaders. Microsoft has its bloated Natural Keyboard which bulges in the center amd has its own proprietary software, claiming that this helps relieve tired hands and improves long-term accuracy. IBM has what it bills as a very high-quality keyboard, somewhat more expensive but with a better tactile interface. European versions are available with keys moved around and keys added for the additional characters in their alphabets. Generally these versions are available only after the US version has been on the market 4-5 months.

A side market is developing with specialized programs just to help people learn to use these devices. Particularly insidious are those which seem to aim at young children such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Key-Boreding, trying to make a game out of this ordeal. Fortunately, in a brief test we found that 19 of 20 children in a 2nd grade classroom weren't fooled at all and chose to read instead of using this game.

Key-boreding isn't yet making a major splash with everyday computer users; instead, it's still a niche product that is being used by those who have a pressing need. The products aren't expensive; only a few dollars for a basic version. In all probability, many potential customers are intimidated by the awkwardness of a new interface and the time commitment involved in making it work. As said earlier, it's far from perfect: I spent time practicing with two key-bored products, Mitsumi and Natural Keyboard, and was impressed and frustrated by the experience.

To train, you repeatedly pound out keystrokes to learn where the letters and other symbols reside. After pounding anywhere from five days to a fortnight, while your fingers learn the key locations, you finally realize what "repetition" really means. Then you can start typing documents.

Advocates estimate that a good key-boreder will "hit a plateau" within two to three days of usage. The idea is that the more you use the it, the better it will perform. After using the key-bored for four weeks, I saw improvement -- although that was after four weeks, not two to three days.

These products boast accuracy of 99.9 percent on up; but getting to that optimal recognition is a painstaking process -- in fact, there are entire books dedicated to explaining how to use the key-bored correctly. Yes, these can quite accurately transcribe your words, but only after you've mastered the ins and outs of proper fingering, specific commands and the oddities of key-bored controls.

For every sentence that I breezily key-boreded, I had to spend another minute or so attempting to delete the mistakes.

To correct an error midway through a sentence, for example, you use a string of keys "Left arrow", "left arrow", "control-left arrow", "backspace", "backspace", "left arrow", "delete", "end". With each of these commands, there's a chance that you will pound the wrong key and accidentally add another error into your sentence, necessitating yet another string of corrections.

Another niggling annoyance: You can't eat and key-bored at the same time. You'll get grease on the key-bored, causing "slick keys" mistakes. The constant pounding creates a cacophony of noises in the office, interfering with those who are dictating on their machines. Leaving the key-bored uncovered invites others to pound away, causing strange characters to appear in your words.

Most important, as a journalist, it's not easy to compose an article through your fingers -- it's a bizarre feeling to "feel" sentences rather than let words roll off your tongue. Writing becomes a tedious act; you get distracted by the mechanics as you must will your fingers to go through awkward gyrations. If you aren't careful, it'll be an awfully slow process: Just the last two sentences alone cost minutes of "backspace" and "delete" and "Control-end." After even a few minutes of key-boreding, it feels like arthritis must be setting in prematurely. Admittedly, Microsoft's Natural Key-bored gave me a few more minutes of use before pain-killers were needed. Of course, these pain-killing drugs have their own effect on the writing :-)

Using key-boreding can stunt the creative writing process -- you end up feeling like an automaton, thinking in short words with your fingers in control. The natural cadence of my sentences instead comes out stiff and dry; my complex thoughts were interrupted by a constant need to correct the mistakes. I felt like an automaton; not an author. Users must more carefully think out what they want to compose before they key-bored it -- which isn't necessarily a natural way of acting in our rushed age.

But regardless of my complaints, key-boreds have a big upside. It's a blessing to not have to waste your speech on repetitious prose; and you get more exercise while your work. Your fingers get more exercise than ever, leaving them fit and trim for other activities. Your pace must be slower, so that you don't make as many mistakes -- so the technology will probably invade government offices quite rapidly.

And, as mothers and teachers around the world will probably rejoice to hear, we humans also need to refine our fine motor skills. Learning to use the keyboard will certainly cause us to have better control over our fingers, leading to increased scores on video games. A good pair of earplugs might be a useful investment, too -- if everyone starts pounding on the machines that surround us, instead of dictating, imagine the cacophony of noises. We may save our voices, our mouth and our tongue, but what about our ears? I'm doubtful that any device this noisy will survive in anything but niche markets. I rate all the key-boreds one star out of five -- nice curiosities for most of us, but nothing that we really need to buy.

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