AbilityNet Factsheet - August 2021

Voice Recognition - An Overview

This factsheet provides an overview of how you can use voice recognition. You can use voice recognition to control a smart home, instruct a smart speaker, and command phones and tablets. In addition, you can set reminders and interact hands-free with personal technologies. The most significant use is for the entry of text without using an on-screen or physical keyboard.

Communication technology continues to evolve rapidly. Using voice recognition to input text, check how words are spelt and dictate messages has become very easy. Most on-screen keyboards have a microphone icon that allows users to switch from typing to voice recognition easily.

For some disabled people who might struggle or find it impossible to work with a mouse or keyboard, speech recognition enables a world of productive possibilities. It can free people from typing and keyboard use, helping those with physical impairments and reducing the risk of repetitive strain injury from excessive typing or mouse use. For example, people with dyslexia can write more fluently, accurately and quickly using voice recognition and may find it less stressful than conventional handwriting or typing.

For employers, enabling voice recognition in systems and encouraging its use in the workplace can be a ‘reasonable adjustment’: preventing discrimination against and maximising the productivity of disabled staff.

Last updated: August 2021

1. How can you control devices with your voice?

image shows a man wearing headphones - he appears to be speaking into a smartphoneVoice recognition is built into most devices. For example, smartphones and tablets include good microphones which will support voice input and commands. Similarly, computers often come with inbuilt cameras, microphones and speakers.

Voice recognition can provide an alternative to typing on a keyboard. At its simplest, it provides a fast method of writing on a computer, tablet or smartphone.  You can speak into an external microphone, headset or built-in microphone, and your words appear as text on the screen.  This might be in the text bar of a search engine, in a chat or a messenger application, or in an email or document.

Some systems and programmes have voice recognition that can be set up to control devices and input text. Simple spoken commands with the right set-up can start and shut down a computer and open and run different programmes and applications. This is highly significant for people with physical disabilities who can use their devices independently just using voice commands.

If the voice recognition can be customised and has settings, you can use it to carry out commands such as:

  • Formatting and saving text
  • Printing and sending documents
  • Writing and sending emails
  • Browsing the web and completing forms

Quite powerful voice recognition programmes are now built into new computers, tablets and smartphones. But to gain a high level of control and functionality, you may want to pay for specialist software.

2. Why use voice recognition?

Voice recognition offers significant benefits to a wide variety of potential users. Most obviously, it is extremely useful for anyone with a physical disability who finds typing difficult, painful or impossible. Additionally, it can help to reduce the risk of getting a repetitive strain injury (RSI) or to manage any such upper limb disorder more effectively.

Voice recognition programmes can also greatly benefit people with dyslexia who would otherwise struggle with spelling and/or structuring sentences correctly.

More generally, voice recognition can help to make mobile working easier, as well as offering potential productivity benefits to anyone who might not be very proficient at typing. In fact, most people can talk much faster than they can type accurately – while ‘hands-free’ computing also offers additional scope for multi-tasking.

Enabling employees in the workplace

There are a number of reasons for employers to embrace voice recognition. For example, RSI is a common workplace complaint caused by repetitive keyboard and mouse tasks; 19% of people f working age are disabled. 

Making appropriate use of voice recognition software can help employers to meet their legal duty of care to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their staff and to make reasonable adjustments.

Employers must take action to minimise the risk of illness or injury to their employees. Voice recognition software helps prevent fatigue and injury by offering a comfortable, ergonomic alternative to the keyboard and mouse.

Employers who do not meet their statutory responsibilities for health and safety may be taken to an employment tribunal.

They could also be vulnerable to claims of discrimination under the Equality Act if they failed to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for their disabled employees. Utilising voice recognition is a very straightforward and cost-effective adjustment that an employer can make to give a disabled member of staff equal access to everything involved in doing and keeping their job as a non-disabled employee.

Aside from concerns regarding health and safety or discrimination, employers should consider the potential efficiency and productivity gains that could be achieved by deploying voice recognition more widely, particularly for staff working ‘on the move.’

3. How to access voice recognition on a desktop device

It's easy to access voice recognition at home and at work with many devices, including it as standard. We've listed details, below but you can also find out more from our free tool, My Computer My Way

Windows Speech Recognition

Microsoft Windows has an inbuilt voice recognition programme called Speech Recognition designed to help people with disabilities who can’t use a mouse or keyboard.

In Windows 10, this allows users to control the computer with voice commands. It can be set up and used to do things such as navigate, open and close applications and dictate text. It is accessed through the Control Panel and ‘Ease of Access’.  Microsoft recommends headset microphones or microphone arrays. 

You will need to 'enrol', but anyone can do so. 


Microsoft Office 19 and Office 365

In Microsoft Office Word, you can use speech-to-text very easily using the Dictate option on the Home tab menu,  providing you have an internet connection and a mic-enabled device.  This feature used to be available for just office 365 users but is now available in Office 19. There are also some supported formatting commands. Further information is available from Microsoft Support (it says that dictate is only available in office 365, which is not the case).

The dictate feature has some customisation options, which also includes the language you want to use. It will recognise a wide range of languages, but you will need to download the database for them, and it will prompt you to do so.  The dictate feature is also available in Powerpoint.

Dictation on a Mac OS

Apple Mac computers running OS X Mountain Lion, Mavericks or Yosemite have free built-in dictation software. This can be accessed through the ‘Dictation and Speech’ panel within System Preferences.

In later OS versions, El Capitaine (11) Sierra and High Sierra 12/13) Mojave (14), you can set up Dictation through system preferences, Keyboard and the option for Dictation. In addition, enhanced dictation enables the user to work offline.

In macOS Sierra, it is possible to ask Siri to ‘turn on dictation’. This isn’t the same as the built-in dictation software, but Siri can compose short text and email messages.

In macOS, after Mavericks turning on ‘Enhanced Dictation’ enables continuous speech recognition and offline processing. Yosemite onwards introduced many new editing and formatting commands. and the ability to create additional dictation commands. The formatting commands are all present in Mojave.

Mac OS Catalina provided Voice Control which went the final step and enabled the computer to be controlled entirely by voice. The steps involved in turning it on are found online

More on Dictation in macOS

Google Speech Recognition

Google speech recognition uses a different neural network architecture. It is free, and Google is continuing to develop and work on it. It doesn’t need enrolment and is considered ‘Speaker independent’.  Speech recognition is available on Android devices, in Google apps such as Keep and in Google docs using the Add-ons Speech Sound writer. This is not the same as Google assistant.

There are some limited settings, and formatting commands and the recognition rate is highly dependent on hardware quality and background noise.

More on Google speech recognition

Speech recognition for Google Docs

We've also included details of specialist voice recognition software below.

4. Specialist voice recognition software

Dragon Individual Professional

Produced by Nuance, Dragon Professional Individual is the market-leading voice recognition software for Microsoft Windows computers. In addition, nuance produces a version for mobile devices called Dragon Anywhere, which is available on a subscription basis. The software and app version do not come together.

Nuance announced in 2018 that it has discontinued Dragon and any voice recognition software for Mac and would no longer provide updates for it beyond this date. Mac users can use the software only by using bootcamp or a virtual machine such as Parallels desktop and needs a licence for a Windows operating system.

Nuance claim that using their Dragon voice recognition works three times faster than typing and achieves 99% accuracy.

Dragon on Windows can be highly customised. It can be used in different language versions and with plugins to provide specialist vocabularies such as medical, legal, geographical and engineering.

It can be used to dictate text, format and correct it, navigate the computer, control workflows, and perform most functions. There are native applications where its full functionality can be used. However, there are some 3rd party applications where it won’t work.

Additional features offered are important for the workplace and include the ability to:

  • Create spreadsheets and presentations using Excel and PowerPoint
  • Offer transcription from recordings
  • Create custom commands and scripts to insert frequently used text and automate repeated tasks.

For more information and to purchase the Dragon software, visit www.nuance.co.uk/dragon/index.htm

5. How to access voice recognition on a mobile device

Graphic shows a mobile phone with a microphone on topThe popularity of smartphones and tablets increases the demand for voice control and dictation among disabled and non-disabled people. Among those using assistive technology, the preference for smartphones increased from 9% to 35%, according to the CickAway Pound. A small keyboard means voice control is often easier to use. 

Voice control for Android mobile devices

Voice typing is available on Android devices, in Google apps such as Keep and Google docs using the tools menu to select voice typing. You will need an internet connection. This is not the same as Google Assistant. To use voice typing, you need to use google docs in the Google Chrome browser, and you can use it across platforms, on Windows or on Mac OS.

There are some limited settings and formatting commands, and the recognition rate is high, dependent on hardware quality and background noise.

You will find the voice commands that can be used here.

To use voice dictation on Android, open any app and launch your onscreen keyboard. Next, tap the microphone icon at the bottom-left corner of your keyboard and start speaking to begin voice dictation. Note, you'll need to speak the punctuation marks as you type.

Google's Voice Access app for Android lets you control your device with spoken commands so you can open apps, navigate, and edit text hands-free. Of course, you can also use Google Assistant. Simply say "Hey Google, open Assistant settings", and choose voice as your preferred input choice.

Voice recognition for  iOS

Voice control is available on iPad and iPhone on iOS 13 or later. Once it completes downloading a file, it needs you don’t need a Wi-Fi connection. 

This video will help with using it on Big Sur, the latest iOS and shows how to use dictation and also to use voice control. There haven't been too many changes since Catalina.

Different languages can also be added once files have been downloaded.

Intelligent personal assistants

Intelligent personal assistants are an important feature of all modern tablets and smartphones. They use voice recognition technology and a natural language user interface to provide a range of services. Some of the most popular personal assistants include:

  • Siri – for iOS devices (iPads and iPhones)
  • Google Nowfor iOS devices, integrated into the browser for Android and Chromebooks.
  • Cortana – for Windows devices.
  • Alexa -Amazon Echo

These personal assistants offer similar features to help with everyday tasks – responding to voice commands and requests to provide information and answer queries (through online sources), sending messages and emails, making phone calls, taking notes, scheduling meetings, and playing music.

6. How does voice recognition software work?

Voice recognition programmes work by analysing sounds and converting these to text. The software draws on a vast vocabulary and a knowledge of how English is spoken to determine what the speaker most probably said. In some programmes, specialist vocabulary or frequently used words such as names can be added through giving it documents, word lists, or using 3rd party plugins.

Recording your voice

Voice recognition software captures and converts speech via a microphone. Some computers include built-in microphones, but most specialist voice recognition programmes also include a microphone headset. This can be connected to the computer, either through its soundcard socket or via a USB (or similar) connection.

It is also possible to use a suitable hand-held digital recorder to dictate recordings – something that may be especially useful for mobile working. Some voice recognition applications can transcribe recordings from a number of formats (including wav, mp3 and wma).

Enrolment

Everyone’s voice and phrasing sound slightly different, so the most effective programme uses a simple, one-off process called ‘enrolment’. This only takes a minute and simply involves reading a short text of a few lines. However, not all most recognition software uses enrolment but may require the user to say if they have an accent and to choose which one.

7. How to make the best use of voice recognition software

When talking, people often hesitate, mumble or slur their words. One of the key skills in using voice recognition software is learning how to talk clearly so that the computer or device can recognise what is being said. It can help to plan what to say and then to speak in complete phrases or sentences.

Voice recognition software can misunderstand some of the words you speak and may put in similar-sounding words, so it can be important to proofread carefully.

While voice recognition software is improving all the time, the error rate can still be quite high. If corrections are made using voice recognition software either by voice or by typing, it can adapt and learn so that, hopefully, the same mistake will not occur again. It can be possible to achieve very high levels of accuracy with careful dictation and correction, and perseverance.

Text-to-speech

Some applications, including Dragon Professional, provide a text-to-speech option (for listening back to the text file that’s been created) and, also, audio playback of the speech (this means that the two can be compared so what was actually said with the software-generated text).

The text-to-speech facility is especially useful for people with a sight impairment (who would find it difficult or impossible to read any text file) and for anyone with dyslexia.

How important is training?

Training is really useful for users to realise the full benefits of working with voice recognition programmes. To get the best from training, it can be helpful to spread it out over a period of weeks – giving the user sufficient opportunity to practice new skills and consolidate their learning between formal coaching sessions.

Training will be most effective when it is geared towards the specific needs of the individual, focusing on their particular tasks and challenges. Specialist vocabularies can be attained by using plugins or by giving the programme access to emails and documents.

A wide range of private and voluntary organisations offer computer training services. The AbilityNet factsheet on Technical help and training resources gives contact details for many organisations that provide ICT training and support for disabled people.

Apple provides tutorials and guidance on setting dictation on the Mac

Windows provides tutorials for their voice recognition

Nuance provides extensive tutorials and support for their Dragon products

A wealth of free training resources is also available online, including on YouTube.

8. Useful contacts

Text-to-speech software

Three very good screen-reading programmes (available for both PC and Mac) worth considering are:

These programmes are all moderately priced, with a free version of NaturalReader also being available.

9. How AbilityNet can help you

My Computer My Way

My Computer My Way is an AbilityNet run website packed with articles explaining how to use the accessibility features built into your computer, tablet or smartphone. The site is routinely updated as new features and changes are made to the Windows, MacOS, iOS, Chrome OS and Android operating systems. The site is broken down into the following sections:

  • Vision – computer adjustments to do with vision and colour
  • Hearing – computer adjustments to do with hearing, communication and speech
  • Motor – computer adjustments to do mobility, stamina and dexterity
  • Cognitive – computer adjustments to do with attention, learning and memory

Use it for free at mcmw.abilitynet.org.uk

Advice and information

If you have any questions please contact us at AbilityNet and we will do all we can to help.

IT support at Home

If you’re looking for in-person support, you can book a free visit from one of our disclosure-checked volunteers. Many of our volunteers are former IT professionals who give their time to help older people and people with disabilities to use technology to achieve their goals. Our friendly volunteers can help with most major computer systems, laptops, tablet devices and smartphones.

https://abilitynet.org.uk/at-home

Copyright information

This factsheet is licensed by AbilityNet under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. View a copy of this license at creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 
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