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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Asiaweek Pictures.
The Digital Olympus DS-150 can record up to 160 minutes of audio in long play mode


A Cure for a Common Clod
Audio recorders are more useful with the switch to digital technology and improvements in speech-to-text software
By JIM ERICKSON

Among the many skills that journalists lack — the absence of practical knowledge being the reason they are unqualified for more dignified professions in the first place — is the ability to type. Most of the writers I know, myself included, are notoriously inept around a keyboard, a considerable handicap for those who tape interviews and consequently must spend many painful hours transcribing spoken words into written ones. That's why even journalists who detest electronic gizmos pay attention when computerized speech-to-text transcription technology is mentioned. Capturing a Q&A session or debate using a digital voice recorder, feeding the audio file into a computer and having the entire proceeding automatically turned into a Word document would be the answer to, if not a thousand prayers, then countless obscenities.

Lernout & Hauspie's Voice Xpress Mobile Professional, which according to the promotional literature "is like having a personal secretary typing every word," appears to be a partial cure for the QWERTY-impaired. The product, offered by one of the leading speech and language software makers, is a package of voice recognition software you load on your PC. It comes bundled with an Olympus DS-150 digital voice recorder and noise-canceling headset. Properly set up, you can use Voice Xpress Mobile Professional to record and organize audio files, transcribe memos, and even operate your desktop machine using voice commands.

At $199, the Lernout & Hauspie package is cheaper than a secretary, but way more expensive than the Radio Shack microcassette recorder I've been using since I borrowed it from a co-worker some 10 years ago. The clunky Radio Shack is reliable and dirt-simple to operate. It is also obsolete now that digital voice recorders are on the market. Besides using no tape (hence no chance a precious quote will be mangled in a snarled cassette), digital devices made by Olympus, Sony, Samsung and others are lightweight, compact and make cleaner recordings than analog counterparts. Some, such as the Olympus V-90, can hold only 90 minutes of audio. But Samsung's SVR-S820 can record for eight hours and Sony's ICD-MS1 stores sound files on Memory Stick cartridges which can be replaced like a microcassette.

The major advantage of digital recorders are features that allow you to store and catalog audio files on your hard drive — no more lost tapes. Sadly, the current state of speech transcription technology remains a few chakras shy of Nirvana. Yes, the L&H software can recognize speech recorded with the DS-150 (up to 75 minutes in dictation mode) and convert it into text with surprising accuracy. But the program must be "trained" to accommodate idiosyncracies in individual speech patterns as well as the recorder. It only works with your voice. In other words, you can't tape a stranger, or various speakers at a meeting for that matter, and expect the software to produce a readable document.

After I trained the program, a tedious process of reading different manufacturer-supplied texts into the computer, Voice Xpress did a nearly flawless job transcribing the following magazine passage: When his plane touched down that fall, 19-year-old Bhatia had $250 in his wallet and butterflies in his stomach. "I felt I had made a big mistake," he says. When a colleague rather than myself did the dictating, the result was laughable: With plain text damned had fall, nineteen year about she had turned and $50.00 in his wallet and other five in stomach. "I chopped onion a big mistake," he said. Bad as it is, my typing is better than that.

If you want the ability to record memos, letters and e-mail on the go while freeing your secretary from transcription chores, Voice Xpress Mobile Professional is an interesting solution. Lernout & Hauspie makes speech programs with specialized vocabularies tailored for doctors and lawyers. There are, however, complexities. It takes more than an hour to set up and to begin to master the software. Too, you must use the DS-150 — other recorders won't work — and unfortunately the Olympus is a fiddly little appliance. The buttons are too small and have to be pressed HARD, and learning to use the many features takes some study. Transferring files from the recorder to the PC is straightforward and fairly fast, since Olympus uses proprietary compression technology to shrink audio data. For optimal results, your computer needs to have Windows, at least 96 megabytes of RAM and a 266-megahertz-or-faster Pentium II microprocessor.

A spokeswoman for Lernout & Hauspie said the company has produced demonstration software that can transcribe recordings of random TV news broadcasts with 90% accuracy. She declined to project when the technology might become commercially available. For now the problems faced by bad typists everywhere remain unsolved. Voice XPress Mobile Professional does offer one intriguing possibility: I might be able to use it to dictate stories like this into my cmputer insted uf tiping thum. And that is not chopped onion.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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