Here are some tips on how to get started using speech recognition software for dictating emails, papers, etc. If you have RSI or just don't like typing, the good news is that the technology has come a long way in the last few years and works quite well these days.

 

Software

Yes, your PC has some speech recognition built into it. But the very best stuff is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Recently a version for the Mac has shipped, which is supposed to use the same internals & so should perform equally well. For years the mac version had weird bugs, but I think those are ironed out now.

As of March 2012 the latest version is 11.5, though I think version 10 is nearly indistinguishable in terms of performance so if you can pick up a used copy that's a good way to save some $. There are several "editions" with various features. I recommend the Preferred version, which has a couple of useful features not available in the entry-level Home verison. If you absolutely must have the very best there is the Professional version, but I think it's wasted money.

 

Microphone

"Doesn't it come with a microphone? Can't I use the same built-in microphone I use for Skype?" Yes and yes, but if you want dictation to work really well then you will want to get yourself a high quality microphone. I would say that having a quality microphone is more important than having the latest software. The one in the box is neither accurate nor comfortable. A good microphone isn't cheap, but it will make the difference between success and frustration.

There three main types of microphones:

  • Headset microphones are the type that come in the box. They sit on your head and have a cord connecting to the computer. Most of these are fairly uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, but a good one can be cheap and have reasonable quality. I find them uncomfortable enough that I avoid them, so I won't recommend any.
  • Desktop microphones sit in a stationary position, so there's nothing to hold. They can have fabulous sound reproduction, but they're not convenient if you like to walk around the office while you work. But if you plan to sit at a desk most of the time, they are a good choice. The very very very best is the Sennheiser MD43II, but you will pay for the top of the line. I find that the Samson Q7 is nearly as good for a fraction of the price. 
  • Wireless micrphones sit either on your head or on your ear and offer the best in terms of convenience because you can walk around the room and not worry about getting tangled in cords. There are some that use Bluetooth, though I have had bad luck with these. The very latest version of Dragon (11.5) lets you use an iPad or iPhone as a microphone (over WiFi), but I can't imagine it's comfortable to hold a phone in front of your mouth for very long or that the audio quality would rival a dedicated microphone. Instead, I recommend a headset with its own transmitter like the Samson Micro, which sits on your ear and is very comfortable. 

Of course I haven't tried every microphone out there, so you may find something that works better for you. What I would encourage is buying from a microphone store like emicrophones.com as they really know the products and can help you find the best solution for your needs. Ask for Marty.

 

Training

For years, the knock on dictation software was that you had to spend an hour training it to your voice. As of a couple of versions ago, Dragon eliminated this requirement so that you can just use it right out of the box. DON'T DO THIS! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease take a few minutes to go through the training process. Even better, do an extended training session of 20m or so. You'll be very glad you did!

The other aspect of training is to have it not just learn your voice (as above) but also to learn your writing style. For example, if you are used to writing academic prose Dragon doesn't know that ex ante. What is very helpful is to have Dragon read some of your papers - don't worry, you don't have to read the documents to it out loud; you just point it to a folder or a collection of Word or text docs you want it to read. it will learn the writing style and also come back with a list of words it hasn't heard before. Also, I would take a minute to speak the words it doesn't know, including author names. It'll work much better.

The final thing to do is to make corrections as you use it. so, if it misses a word, go back and higlight that phrase (not just the word) and correct it. It helps to highlight the phrase because Dragon uses n-gram language models that depend on knowing which words tend to follow each other. So, if you said "unresolved endogeneity" but Dragon thinks you said "unresolved endangerment", don't just highlight "endangerment" and fix it; highlight the whole phrase and fix it. That way, Dragon will learn that those two words are likely to appear together.

 

 

That's it! Good luck and feel free to get in contact if you have questions. Susan Athey also has a page on using dictation for equations in particular.