Get the word out: Uses for Microsoft's XP Text-To-Speech technology

Want to use your voice to get things done? With the Microsoft XP Text-To-Speech feature, you can (sometimes) give the mouse a rest. Jim Wells touches on a few real-world examples of how to use this not-quite-perfect technology.

Growing up with the keyboard and mouse makes it difficult to accept the Text-To-Speech (TTS) medium. With the QWERTY-style keyboard layout firmly implanted in my brain, I can hammer out correspondence and articles quickly and efficiently. So, when asked to come up with ideas for implementing TTS in real world situations, I used my familiar Office applications as a test lab.

Using TTS to audit your input
Since individuals and corporations use Microsoft Excel extensively, I thought this application would be a good place to start my testing. The most obvious advantage of using TTS with Excel is the ability to quickly check large lists of numbers. My brain seems to disconnect from my fingers when typing in long lists of numbers. I can recall several times in the past where I copied a bunch of numbers into Excel from a printed output, only to find my totals completely different from the original. Searching through the forest of numbers for my mistakes proved equally time consuming.

With TTS, you can audit your input by having the computer replay your words either as you type or after you have completed your list. While having TTS repeat a cell value as you type is a neat feature, I found the system had trouble keeping up with the speed at which I could input numbers. Therefore, I primarily used TTS to repeat cell values after I finished typing. For example, suppose I enter a list of numbers into a spreadsheet like the one in Figure A.

Figure A

Chances are, I transposed or missed a number somewhere along the way. To check for accuracy using TTS, I must select the data I want repeated back to me. Next, I simply click on the first icon on the TTS toolbar (Figure B).

Figure B
To stop TTS from repeating cell values, click the second icon from the left. To have it repeat the cell value as you type, click the fifth icon from the left.

The PC will begin to repeat back each number (or word) it encounters before moving on to the next cell. If you prefer to have the PC read row-by-row, click on the third icon in the TTS toolbar and it will repeat cell values left to right. The fourth icon controls the column-by-column playback mode. If you’re having trouble with your numbers tying back to the source document, you can run TTS to do a check. That way, you can keep your eyes on the source document while the PC repeats the contents of each cell. This makes it easy to track down any rogue numbers you missed.

Voice commands free you up to do more
Inputting information or commands into Excel is just as easy. However, as mentioned in a previous Daily Feature, getting the system to recognize your voice accurately can prove more trouble than it's worth. I recommend using a high-quality headset microphone.

When it came to talking into a microphone to input data, I found I was better off using the keyboard instead. The microphone sometimes picked up extraneous sounds, and what I said vs. what appeared on screen was vastly different. Not to mention, I had to spend even more time reentering the misconstrued input.

So, I found TTS better served me when issuing voice commands to perform various Excel tasks. In fact, I found this feature handy with all the Office applications. To use voice commands, click on the Microphone icon on the Language Bar. The bar expands to reveal several options and can be used with all Office applications.

After clicking the Voice Command icon, TTS starts, and any command you speak into it will be performed by the system. For example, to close an open file, speak the commands “file” and “close.” TTS easily opened and closed dialog boxes, but I had to use the mouse and keyboard to perform some other basic operating tasks. Oddball stuff like changing default colors from the Options menu or making cell area selections are not well suited for voice command, though. I also had to use the mouse a lot to access drop-down menus.

Keyboard commands also fall under the bailiwick of voice command options. Thus, if you need to escape from a dialog box, you can simply say, "Escape," and you will revert to the previous screen. Table A lists the keyboard commands and their proper voice commands for TTS.

Table A
Keyboard command Voice command
Left arrow key "Left"
Right arrow key "Right"
Up arrow key "Up"
Down arrow key "Down"
Home key "Home"
End key "End"
Enter key "Enter"
Escape key "Escape"
This list is fairly self explanatory and easy to use.

A word about Word and TTS
Those of us who spend our time pounding out thoughts on keyboards dream of the day when our electronic secretaries will accurately dictate our spoken words. I hoped the latest version of Windows would get us closer to this goal. However, after several failed attempts at writing this Daily Feature in Microsoft Word using a combination of Dictation TTS, Voice Command TTS, keyboard input, and mouse clicks, I regretfully report that we are not quite there.

I gave up at talking into the microphone just to get my thoughts in the program; the cleanup chore was laborious. TTS would either take too long to process my words (making it impossible to speak at a normal pace) or would mangle some words with bizarre interpretations. I adjusted the Recognition Profile Settings (Figure C) in the Control Panel Speech Properties dialog box several times, to no avail.

Figure C
You should always leave the Background Adaptation checkbox on.

In Word, TTS records the actual speech sounds that you dictate. With several tools at my disposal for correcting words as I dictated, I became disenchanted with the thought of correcting all the speech variances that TTS encountered. While switching to voice command made it easier to complete the task, I questioned why I should use TTS in the first place. With the speed at which I could accurately type my thoughts, I found TTS was way too slow. It still has a long way to go before I feel I can drop the keyboard habit. However, at some point, we had to break free from using stone tablets, so I will never say never when it comes to using TTS in the real world.

With practice, I may be able to eventually wean myself away from depending so much upon the keyboard and mouse. The trick is to prep the system with so much of your own voice training that it recognizes the different tones and inflections. While my experience with using TTS in Word to create a document proved futile, I found several timesaving advantages with the voice command and using TTS in my cell-repeat function.

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