Thursday, April 26, 2007

Weaning yourself off the keyboard

Today, I'll be talking about Vista's new speech recognition technology. Unfortunately, it's received a lot of bad press in the last few months mostly due to disastrous technical difficulties experienced at a Microsoft-hosted demonstration. Perhaps you’ve seen the video online. Everyone loves to laugh at and/or trash Microsoft. I’m not going to comment either way right now as that’s not the focus of this particular post. What I do hope to achieve is to draw attention to a very usable tool. Vista’s built-in speech recognition has enabled me to reduce the use of both keyboard and mouse to over 90%. To a sufferer of repetitive strain injury, this is an astonishing relief.

I won't be going over the setup process as it is very simple and other web sites already have excellent introductions (check out ExtremeTech's view of it: Vista's Speech Recognition).

Don’t get me wrong. Microsoft has not perfected speech recognition. What they have done is integrate it at the OS level so that anyone could technically do away with both keyboard and mouse. As makers of the operating system, perhaps they're the only ones who could have brought this about. I’m not technical enough to know if that’s true. I have seen how Dragon NaturallySpeaking has approached this, but beyond dictation it seems to be quite awkward controlling anything else (although I do know it's possible to program as many custom macros as you need with the Pro edition, but who wants to spend all that time doing that?).

The magic of Vista's speech recognition is in controlling programs. I can surf the web, respond to emails, and control every aspect of the operating system with my voice. Sometimes it really does feel like magic. The first time I was able to "click" on a link just by reading it I was sold. The first time the program threw up numbers on the screen to figure out which link I meant, I thought "Now that makes sense!"

Disambiguation or "Which one?" (Click to enlarge.)

To be fair, Vista's speech recognition is not compatible with every program. Now before you cry foul about Microsoft only making their products compatible with other Microsoft products, you might be amused to find that their speech recognition isn't even fully compatible with all of their own programs. Hopefully this will be a nonissue in the coming months. But for now, I've had to abandon some of my favourite programs in order to reach that 90% plateau I mentioned earlier.

I had to give up my beloved Opera for browsing. Of course, Internet Explorer is completely compatible, but I really hate to use it. Luckily, Firefox is almost as compatible once "Enable dictation everywhere" is checked under speech options (just say "show speech options" then "options"). The only difference is that it will pop up a confirmation box whenever entering text. I had to change my RSS reader (Opera again) to GreatNews. And I had to change my e-mail program (yeah you guessed it, Opera again) to Windows Mail which is the only one I found that worked without popping up those aforementioned confirmation boxes which is too annoying for dictating e-mail.

Entering text in Firefox (Click to enlarge.)

This brings us to dictation. I wouldn't even attempt to dictate before going through the subsequent training you can do after the initial setup. For best results, I would recommend using a headset that connects through USB rather than through your computer's sound card. I bought a used Sennheiser PC165 which has the added benefit of noise cancellation technology which doesn't hurt. If you already have a cheapish headset, try them out to see how well they work. Just know that if you get too frustrated, a better headset will improve the situation. If you don't already have a cheapish headset, don't waste your money on one.

Now if you follow the above advice, you'll find dictation accuracy of Vista's speech recognition to be quite good. It is nowhere near perfect, but it will only improve the more you use it. If I were to judge by dictation alone, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is much more accurate at getting it just right. But with its $200 price tag along with its previously mentioned shortcomings, the gap in accuracy doesn't seem to be so wide. With a little patience and a little practice in learning how to dictate to your computer (longer phrases rather than word by word works best for me) and using it will become as natural as typing. If it hasn't already occurred to you, I of course use it to dictate all of my posts.

To sum up, with Vista there is finally a speech recognition solution that can be used all the time. I have no doubt that this will be the first of many posts on this topic. I am excited that speech recognition is finally entering the mainstream. I can only hope that enough enthusiasm is garnered by this promising beginning that Microsoft and other operating system makers continue to pour resources into this important technology. (Dare I suggest that this is the real reason that Mac has postponed the release of its next OS?)

As always, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Weaning yourself off the mouse

If you read the wikipedia article on the computer mouse, you'd find that it was invented way back when the Beatles were becoming popular. However, it would take 20 more years before the Macintosh would bring it into mainstream computing in the mid 80s. What all this means for the majority of computer users is that it has been there since their first encounter with the personal computer.

Most people who complain of repetitive strain from computer work feel most of their pain in their mouse hand or wrist. Put simply, it is the main contributor to the problem of RSI. Although I would certainly recommend switching to a trackball, this is only going to be a small part of the solution. If the damage is done, you must change the way you interact with your computer. First step: only use your mouse if no other option is available.

As our operating systems and the programs that run on them have become more and more graphically based, reliance on the mouse has grown. So much so that some programs are so poorly designed that they don't even give you the option of using the keyboard. The good news is that most programs these days allow you to control everything there is to control strictly by keyboard.

You may be thinking "How am I supposed to remember all the keyboard shortcuts to all the programs I use?" If you think about it, you may realize that you spend more than 90% of your time using two or maybe three programs using a pretty limited set of commands (e.g. browser, word processor, e-mail). After a short learning curve, you'll find that not only will you give your dominant hand some relief, but that it's a much faster and more efficient way to get things done.

If you're not sure whether the program you're using has keyboard shortcuts, check its help file or search the internet for a list you can print out and put in front of you while you learn. At the very least anything from the menu bar can be accessed by keyboard (press ALT + the underlined letter). Often you will find some keyboard shortcuts listed here as well.

Is the idea of browsing the internet without a mouse new to you? Check out these solutions: the Opera browser has a wonderful feature which allows you to select any link on any web page all by keyboard. By pressing the ',' or comma key, the "finding links" box will pop up.

As you can see from the picture, by typing in some of the letters contained in the link, it will be highlighted in green. To select it simply press enter. For the keen sighted among you, you'll see the same letters highlighted in yellow. To select this link instead simply continue typing until the letter combination is distinct (in this case: rock m) or press F3 to switch between any link with these letters.

For Firefox users, you may want to look into Mouseless Browsing or Hit-a-Hint which are extensions which allow you to select links by typing in the numbers that pop up beside them. Whichever browser you favour, the point is that it can be done.

In the end, limiting the time you sit with your hand hovering over the mouse moving it awkwardly this way and that way repeatedly clicking and clicking and clicking will at least give your dominant hand a fighting chance to begin healing.

Now that you've learned how to mainly use the keyboard, next time I'll talk about leaving it behind as well.

If you have anything to add to these mouseless methods, please leave a comment.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why I'm starting a weblog

I'm on the computer a lot.  In this day and age, it seems more and more people are spending more and more time for work and entertainment in front of a computer.  I'll make no judgments about that right now.  That's the way it is, and it's only going to increase as time moves forward.


My problem started three years ago when working on contract for a local university.  I was set up at a desk that was not quite designed for human beings (at least none that I know).  The keyboard and mouse were too high and angled in such a way that to use them my wrists had to bend back as if I were pushing the desk away.


Well it turns out that's what I should've done.  I didn't want to complain since I was originally supposed to only be there for three months, but after a couple of extensions to my contract, I realized that I couldn't go on with the pain in my wrists and hands.


I actually woke up one morning thinking I was having a heart attack or stroke since my whole right arm was numb.  You'll be happy to know (I know you've already got a soft spot for me) that I was destined to live on although with something called RSI - repetitive strain injury.


It's been a year and a half since I decided to live in an ergonomically conscious way.  In spite of this, my wrists and hands have not completely healed.  So the plan is to share what I've learned in order to help the growing numbers that are going through the same.


I'm no SCI Fi buff, but I know enough to have heard of Asimov's three laws of robotics.  The first one being: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.  I don't think it's farfetched to believe that this should apply to computers as well.