Techniques: Off the Shelf

Inexpensive voice-recognition software lets you talk your way around the World Wide Web

I have web-addicted friends whose wrists have grown sore from clicking on too many links, and I myself am quadriplegic. So I am pleased to report that anyone who is able to speak can use Convers Web, a no-hands browser.

If all else fails, I always say, read the manual. Convers has no manual, though, and nothing fails. The setup protocol uses an audio-setup wizard that appears automatically and guides you as you flawlessly install, tune, and position a microphone and a speaker.

Voice-recognition software has improved immeasurably since I beta-tested DragonDictate years ago. That early product needed time to learn my voice and still worked only after I learned how to pause between words. Current software allows users to speak continuously.

Today I rely on such software as Dragon's Naturally-Speaking, a voice-dictation system that retails for $109. Both NaturallySpeaking and Convers Web, priced at a scant $30, use voice input to accomplish their different tasks. I was pleased to find that once I had invested $40 in a high-performance directional mike, Convers Web lived up to its press releases: accuracy testing ranged from 95% to 99.5%. Also, while Dragon's NaturallySpeaking took a mandatory half-hour to learn my voice, Convers, with its dictionary of one-million-plus words, needs no such training period and works with any speaker.

And it takes no time to learn how to use Convers Web. The software latches on to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.x to provide HTTP processing, and except for the toolbar that displays Convers's spoken commands (which the company calls "saycons"), it looks like the Internet Explorer screen. At the opening screen, the user asks, "What can I say?" to reveal Convers's pull-down menu of 25 spoken navigational commands, including Go to Home Page, Scroll Right, Add to Favorites, Show Favorites, Go Back Three Pages, and Convers, Help Me.

Until you have a site bookmarked among your Favorites, you must type its address. Then moving to a marked site is a snap. "Show favorites," I say, and Convers displays a pull-down list of my frequently used links. To select Justice for All, the home page of the advocacy group I work with, I simply say, "Justice for all," and Convers takes me there. Getting from one site to a linked site is also a voice-activated activity. At the White House home page, for example, when I say, "What's New?" (the name of a link I want to check), it flashes and connects me to a list of recent White House press releases.

On Web pages that use only icons with no accompanying text to identify their links or that use identical text next to several icon links, Convers Web automatically inserts a special number in each image's upper-right-hand corner. To activate those links, you simply say the word number, followed by the actual number. Convers navigation is as quick as clicking.

I'm impressed, but I'm mildly disappointed to find that it's still too early to discard my mouse and keyboard. To use a search engine, you must type the keywords, and some bit-maps and Java applets with image buttons require clicking. By saying, "Add to favorites," you can bookmark sites, but organizing them requires right-clicking and typing.

Still, with Convers, voice response is so good that when the phone or a visitor interrupts surfing, you merely say, "Convers, go to sleep," to get the software to stop taking commands. You deal with the interruption, and when you are again ready to surf, you say, "Convers, wake up."

I invited a friend with mouse-exhausted wrists to try Convers, too. I told her only that to start her Web session she should say, "What can I say?" Within seconds and with no further instruction, she too was surfing and ready to buy the software.

The Product: Convers Web (first version) from Conversational Computing Corp., in Redmond, Wash. (888-487-4373;; $29.95 downloaded from Web site; $39.95 on CD-ROM, which includes additional content)

Reviewer: Fred Fay, disability-rights activist and moderator of the mailing list Justice for All E-mail Network

Requirements: Pentium 120MHz; Windows 95 or NT; 24MB memory (32MB preferred); 10MB free hard-disk space; sound card; microphone; speakers or headphone; Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.x