Talk to the Machine: Voice Control Comes Into Its Own

Article Highlights:
  • Voice-activated technology has come a long way since Dragon NaturallySpeaking was first released in the 1990s.
  • The author explores the evolution of voice-activated technology and devices, and describes several products currently on the market that enable people with physical disabilities to control virtually everything in their environment by voice.
by Steve Spohn on July 1, 2013 - 9:05am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 3

"Hello, Computer,” Star Trek’s space engineer Scotty says pleasantly, while holding a computer mouse up to his mouth as if it were a microphone. No response. “Just use the keyboard,” he’s advised. “The keyboard,” he says. “How quaint.”

In the 1986 movie “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” the starship Enterprise’s engineer has traveled back in time, where Scotty can’t fathom a computer without voice control. Back when the movie came out, the ability to control machinery with the sound of your voice was considered science fiction.

With Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, dictating your email is just the beginning. You can control your entire computer hands-free with verbal commands.

By the 1990s, a company called Nuance had launched an innovative technology called Dragon NaturallySpeaking (DNS or Dragon for short). This unknown program promised you could operate your entire computer by simply speaking to it through a microphone. Dragon offered users with limited mobility a chance to type even if they couldn’t use a keyboard.

It was horrible. Dragon hardly recognized anything the user said as words, especially if you had an accent, and even if it did they were rarely the right words. The vocabulary was limited, and the speed was awful.

The 2000s saw technology starting to catch up. Dragon put out a new version every year including improvements that took into account the area of the world where you lived, right down to the dialect you used. Its database held a far greater vocabulary and the accuracy skyrocketed from below 10 percent in the 90s to upwards of 90 percent. It was still frustrating at times, but in 2008, DNS 10 changed everything by reaching 98 percent accuracy in surveys, with some users reporting 100 percent accuracy.

Paving the way for accessibility

Dragon NaturallySpeaking had become mainstream. People with no limits on their abilities were using Dragon to speed up work production — so much so that Microsoft incorporated its own voice-recognition engine into Windows.

Today, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is one of the best tools for anyone who has trouble using a standard keyboard. The accuracy, speed and vocabulary are top-notch. In fact, the article you’re reading right now was created entirely using Dragon.

But the program doesn’t just do dictation. It can control your entire computer through voice commands. Saving files, opening documents, controlling your Web browser for research and even issuing commands in video games can all be done with your voice. Having the ability to use your voice or make sounds to activate machinery enables a wide range of opportunities to recapture priceless independence for those with limited mobility.

For example, it’s nearly impossible to use mobile phones and tablets if you have an advanced motor impairment. Yet with innovations like Siri (a virtual assistant program) for the iPhone and Dragon apps for the iPad, users can speak directly to a mobile device without much interaction. You’ll still need to find a way to start the voice-activation process.

The Tecla Shield allows you to use your wheelchair’s joystick to control any mobile device.

This usually happens by pressing the “home” button on your iPhone or Android device — but if you can’t push that button to make the program listen to you, voice control doesn’t do you much good.

That’s where a device like the Tecla Shield from Komodo comes in handy. With a Tecla, you can use your wheelchair’s joystick or any switch that you can activate to control your mobile device. The basic unit is $289, with additional options such as mounts and cords also available.

Always on

There are still some limitations with voice-activated technology. For example, most devices are not considered always on — the mode of a device constantly listening — which presents its own problems, such as accidentally activating.

One day, all devices will constantly be listening and answer when spoken to, just like Scotty saying “computer.” In fact, a few devices are making great strides toward that goal already.

Dragon TV is a new feature from Nuance that will be included in newer model TVs starting in the summer of 2013. Users will be able to say “Dragon TV” followed by a question such as “what time is American Idol on?” or “find Michael Jackson videos on YouTube,” and the TV will automatically display the time or available videos. You’ll be able to change the channel, adjust volume, interact with social media and search the Internet all with the sound of your voice.

Panasonic’s Smart VIERA TV line featuring Dragon TV starts at around $700. Another device called the Ubiquitous Computer (also called the “Ubi”) will soon be available. Ubi is a small virtual assistant that plugs directly into a wall outlet. Through Wi-Fi, Ubi connects to the Internet, your home network and even other Ubis.

The device itself will allow you to say “Ubi” followed by commands such as looking up recipes, setting the temperature in your home or searching the Internet for material. You have to be within 15 feet of the device in order for it to recognize your voice, but there are no buttons to press or interfaces to mess with. The device is always on and ready to help.

The VoiceMe II lets you control any infrared device such as your TV, cable box or radio.
Yes, this is a remote control, but wait — there’s more: Hold the Amulet Voice Remote vertically and speak into it like a mic for voice control.
“There Came an Echo” is a new video game controlled totally by voice commands. As field commander of an elite squad, you direct your personnel around a map to accomplish various objectives.

Someday I plan to do an entire article just on the ramifications this device has for the disability community. Growing up, and even up to today, one of the biggest fears I had was that something would happen to my caretakers when I was not at the computer or near a phone in order to call 911. They could be in real trouble, and I wouldn’t be able to help.

Even more terrifying was the thought of the caretaker falling asleep (those of us who have caretakers know this happens all the time) and something going wrong. I would’ve had no way to let the outside world know I needed help.

With Ubi, help is only a few voice commands away — “Ubi, call help” — and within seconds whoever I programmed Ubi to call knows I’m in trouble. I believe the peace of mind such security brings is priceless. Especially as no other device in the same price range works solely from voice.

Technology now

VoiceMe II is an interesting piece of voice-controlled hardware that enables you to control any infrared (IR) device such as your TV, cable box, radio, etc. The UFO-shaped device allows up to three IR signals to be sent at one time.

So, you can turn on three different devices or change the channel to a three-digit number. Each command has its own voice prompt, which it learns from your own voice. So if you can’t say an actual word, it doesn’t matter; it just learns the sounds you make for that particular command.

VoiceMe II is becoming increasingly difficult to find as production on the device winds to a close, but savvy Internet searches can net one for around $325.

Another device that acts similar to Dragon TV and VoiceMe II is called the Amulet Voice Remote. The device is a standard remote control with a voice-activation feature that is triggered by holding the remote vertically. For $150, the Amulet Remote is perfect for those who lack the fine motor control to push the buttons on a standard remote control, but who have the ability to lift the remote control to their mouth and talk.

There are even companies adapting voice-controlled wheelchairs that would allow users to whisper directional commands. One university is working on a wheelchair that would allow you to say “go to the fridge” or “go to the bathroom,” and the wheelchair would automatically maneuver to your desired location with the help of sensors placed strategically around your home.

There are video-game technologies like the Xbox Kinect that can recognize voice commands to do things originally designed for remote controls, such as controlling Netflix or Hulu. There are even entire video games that have no physical controls, only voice commands, such as the upcoming game “There Came an Echo.”

Everything from cars to bars to home automation services are all experimenting with various ways to use voice controls. Using your voice is convenient for everyone, but imperative for those who don’t have physical abilities. In the coming years, we will see voice-recognition technology continue to evolve as more companies realize the demand for such features.

Able-bodied individuals gain convenience from voice-control technology, while the disability community gains the greatest reward of all: independence.

Steve Spohn is editor-in-chief of and outreach chair for the AbleGamers Foundation. Steve, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is a 32-year-old award-winning writer living in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. His debut fiction novel, The Finder, an action-adventure story laced with comedy, is available on Amazon now.

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