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Is Speech Recognition Still Assistive Technology?

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Is Speech Recognition Still Assistive Technology?

Nuance Communications senior product manager Colleen Hendry in one of her many video tutorials posted on the VoicesofDragon blog.

Nuance Communications, Inc.

Nuance Dragon Product Manager Colleen Hendry Says Yes:

Few assistive technologies appeal to non-disabled persons like speech recognition.

TV ads featuring iPhone 4S assistant Siri speaking answers or would-be novelists dictating with Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking air every night.

Can we even call speech (or voice) recognition "assistive" anymore? Will the technology's mainstreaming diminish quality for those who rely on it most: persons with disabilities?

Colleen Hendry of Nuance Communications develops both Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Dragon Dictate for Mac. As senior product manager, she identifies market requirements and works with Nuance engineers to add those features.

In this interview, conducted by phone on February 3, 2012, Hendry discusses speech recognition's surging popularity and the balancing required to ensure products appeal to mainstream users while still serving persons with disabilities.

Q. Given its Mainstream Appeal, Does Nuance Still Develop Dragon as Assistive Technology?

C.H.: Absolutely -- more than anything. Assistive technology is one of speech recognition's primary roles. A large portion of our customer base is persons with disabilities. The "I Speak Dragon" section of Nuance.com has many testimonials from users with physical disabilities, visual impairments, and mobility limitations. In the past year, however, speech recognition has gone to the masses. Different products, including Dragon and Siri on Apple's iPhone 4S, have really increased awareness.

Growing Popularity of Dragon Speech Recognition:

Q. What's Driving Dragon's Popularity?

C.H.: I think people see speech recognition in a new light. It's not just for fun anymore (i.e. for users without disabilities), but can be used to teach a new skill or career. We have our medical and legal editions of NaturallySpeaking. Some people are looking for programs to support a livelihood, such as writers and transcribers. Others seek a higher quality of life. I met a man recently who'd been looking for something to enable his wife, who is a quadriplegic, to communicate.

Q. Do You Focus on Disability During Product Development?

C.H.: In product development, we're always trying to make our products faster, more accurate, and easier to use. And we definitely focus on how we can make products more accessible, e.g. to make it easier to be hands free. We strive for a healthy mix: products that are fun for mainstream users, as well as being very assistive.

Q. Have You Been Surprised by What Types of Disabilities Dragon Aids?

C.H.: Yes. I'd met a gentleman whose wife had had a stroke. She wasn't able to type and her speech was impaired, but she used Dragon to communicate with her family. I saw him at MacWorld in January. His wife had passed away, but he came to let us know of the tremendous quality of life she enjoyed during her final eight months.

Hendry Says Dictation Improves Literacy by Forcing You to Think:

Q. Does Dragon Seek to Eliminate the Keyboard from Computing?

C.H.: We do as much as we can to make our products as hands-free as possible. But we want users to do what's most effective for them and do what's going to make them the most productive.

Q. How Do You Answer Critics Who Say Dictation Programs Impair Literacy?

C.H.: I beg to differ. When you grow up writing by typing, you start to think through the keyboard. And we speak three times faster than we type. So, speech recognition is a paradigm shift: it forces you to think a little more and to speak in a clear voice. As your words come up on the screen Dragon recognizes context and teaches you correct spellings. It enhances literacy. It has made me more articulate because I have to think about what I say.

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