Innovation

How to control your Windows 10 PC using VoiceAttack

Use voice commands to control applications, compose text, and make Windows talk like William Shatner.

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Image: iStock / Halfpoint

Tech giants are locked in a hot race to put voice-controlled virtual assistants on your phone and in your pocket, car, and home. Amazon's Alexa dominated 2017's Consumer Electronics Show, Google Assistant is woven into the fabric of all Google services, Siri accessible with one-tap on everything from the iPhone to AirPods, and Microsoft's Cortana could represent the future of Windows' mobile strategy. The boom in personalized AI products implies a macro trend towards voice-controlled computer interface products that, if embraced by business and consumers, could portend a profound shift in how humans interact with machines.

Due to the prevalence of mobile devices, it's easy to forget that Apple, Google, and Microsoft all offer sophisticated voice-controlled virtual assistants for PCs as well. Microsoft's speech recognition AI is not perfect but is a cornerstone of Windows 10, and with the right software and speech training can be used to control a bevy of desktop applications.

SEE: Windows spotlight: 30 tips and tricks for power users (Tech Pro Research)

Gaming helped push the limits of PC speech interface innovation. Late last year an inspired developer discovered how to use Amazon's Echo to control the space simulator Elite:Dangerous. Amazon recently launched a game engine called Lumberyard and attracted Elite:Dangerous competitor Star Citizen to the cloud platform. Soon Amazon could offer game and PC controls as a core ingredient of the Alexa platform.

Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen voice controls both rely on a Windows application called VoiceAttack. Though it was developed to control video games VoiceAttack can use Microsoft's speech recognition software to launch and control many Windows 10 applications.

Getting started:

  • First, prepare your machine to install the program. VoiceAttack supports and updates the software, but as with any installation make sure you back up your machine and make sure your Windows 10 install is bug-free.
  • Next, point your browser to https://voiceattack.com/#download-1 to download the latest version of the software. Note that VoiceAttack offers a free trial and costs $9.99 for the premium version. Free users can try out every feature available to premium users but are limited to a total of 20 voice commands.
  • Finally, install the software and follow the configuration prompts. Make sure to read and follow the instructions carefully and avoid quickly skipping through the wizard.
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Image: Microsoft

Setup:

  • Attach a Windows 10-compatible microphone to your computer. This can be your webcam mic, a high-quality external mic, or a desktop mic. Generally, the better your microphone the better Windows will recognize your voice. This story was produced using the Logitech C920 webcam microphone.
  • Before you continue with VoiceAttack configuration, you will train Microsoft's speech recognition software.
  • In the Windows 10 Cortana search menu type, speech and click the microphone icon. This will launch the Windows Speech Recognition application.
  • Follow the speech recognition fine-tuning instructions and make sure to save or print the Windows Speech Recognition commands reference sheet. As with the VoiceAttack installation, do not skip the tutorial.
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Image: Microsoft
  • Next, configure Windows Voice Training and follow the prompts to speak to your computer. Windows will walk you through a tutorial session that involves reading several paragraphs out loud. Each session takes approximately 10 minutes to complete. This is the most time-consuming but important part of the process. For best results, make sure you tune Windows voice recognition two or three times.
  • Now you're ready to configure and use VoiceAttack. Launch the application. You will likely be met with a prompt to close Microsoft's Speech Recognition. Click Yes and allow VoiceAttack to be your primary voice recognition application. VoiceAttack will rely on the Windows voice training but operate as the default front end application.
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Image: VoiceAttack
  • Launch VoiceAttack and issue a spoken command, like open Slack. VoiceAttack will show you a log of recognized and unrecognized commands. VoiceAttack also allows you to select and customize various input methods and applications.
  • Add custom commands by clicking the + icon in the application menu. Here you can add custom commands, or import premade commands. The VoiceAttack forums are loaded with Windows commands.
  • Practice. It takes time to train Microsoft and VoiceAttack to understand your unique vocal patterns. The more you use the applications, the better they respond.
  • If you encounter problems or hiccups refer to the VoiceAttack Quick Start guide and How-To guide.
  • Bonus: Replace the default voice with William Shatner. HCS Voice Packs creates audio packages that can replace the default Windows and VoiceAttack voices. Our favorite, of course, is the William Shatner voice pack. The legendary Star Trek captain produced hours of dialogue for both Elite: Dangerous and Windows and at your command will share information about the Big Bang, black holes, and other cool space facts.
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Image: HCS Voice Packs

Speech interface devices are in their infancy and sure to improve with time. The more you train Microsoft's voice software, the better your results will be. Though limited now, the number of applications compatible with voice commands is rapidly growing. Using applications like VoiceAttack is not just fun and convenient, the process also helps us understand the evolution and potential future of computing.

SEE: Build your own VM in the cloud with Microsoft Azure (Tech Pro Research)

We encourage your thoughts and experiences with virtual assistants and speech-controlled applications in the comments below.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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