Computers that are controlled just by speaking to them have been a dream since the early days of science fiction. Sadly, in the same way that I didn’t take my flying car to work this morning, I’m writing this review on a keyboard, not dictating it to an artificial intelligence. Still, there has been some progress. Microsoft’s latest application for its Pocket PC line is the aptly named Voice Command, which allows you to control some functions of your handheld by speaking commands.
How Does It Work?
Rather than constantly listening to everything that goes on around it, to get your Pocket PC to start listening to you, you have to push one of the buttons, though you have your choice of which one. I chose the voice recorder button. This will cause a small icon to appear at the top of the screen which shows you Voice Command is ready.
Once you have it listening, you can tell it to open any application on your handheld or a memory card by saying, for example, “Start Calendar,” or “Start Internet Explorer.”
Once an application is running, what you can do with it depends on which application you’re talking about.
Calendar Voice Command does more than just carry out verbal orders; it also has some text-to-speech capabilities. This means you can say, “What’s my schedule for tomorrow?” and your Pocket PC will read you all your calendar entries for the next day, including when and where they are. (Hear what this sounds like.) You can also ask for your next appointment or all your appointments for today.
One of my favorite features of this application is its ability to read the text of alarms when they go off. If I have a 3 o’clock meeting with Steve, at 2:45 my Pocket PC beeps and says “Meeting with Steve in 15 minutes.”
Contacts Once you have the Contacts application open, you can display an entire entry by saying all or part of a name.
This is especially handy if you are using a Phone Edition device, as you can also dial a person just by saying their name. You can even say a phone number aloud and it will be dialed.
Media Player Voice Command collects all the songs on the Pocket PC and memory cards and organizes them by Album, Artist, and Genre. This allows you to, for example, tell it to play all the songs by a certain artist. If you can’t remember all the albums or artists you have, your handheld can read them to you. Or you can tell it to play everything you have stored.
Microsoft assumes that if you are controlling your Pocket PC with your voice, you might not have both hands available. Therefore, Voice Command comes with a skin for the Media Player with big buttons that makes it easy to use by touching the screen with your finger.
If for some reason you don’t want any of these applications to be voice-enabled, you can turn each one off individually.
There are a few other things you can do. For instance, if you add a link to your favorite web site (like Brighthand) to the Start Menu, you can open that site just by saying “Open Brighthand.”
How Well Does It Work?
Voice Command works pretty well, within its narrow limits. For the most part, it doesn’t have any problems recognizing what I’m saying. I also got some other people to try it and it worked just fine for them.
It also handles ambient noise surprisingly well. I’ve used it in a pretty noisy room and even in my convertible with no problems. Actually, I found that by the time an area got so loud it was having a hard time understanding me, I was having a hard time hearing what it was saying back.
However, it does run into difficulties with words that sound a lot alike. For example, one of the Brighthand staff people is Jennifer Shelamer. If I’m in Contacts and I say “Open Shelamer,” it will open the Calendar. You can also run into problems if you have people with similar sounding names. This means that if you are planning to use this to look up names in your list of contacts, you are going to have to greatly limit the number of names it has to look through.
Is It Worth It?
The fact that Voice Command does what it says it does doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth the $40 Microsoft is asking for it. Actually, I think it’s greatly over-priced for what it does.
Let’s compare a voice-enabled handheld to one that isn’t. On the non-voice-enabled handheld, you launch the Calendar by pressing a button on the device. On the Pocket PC running Voice Command, you launch the Calendar by pressing a button on the device and saying “Open Calendar.” It actually adds a step.
However, there is a time when Voice Command is very useful: when you are driving. This application gives your Pocket PC the ability to tell you what your schedule is, without you having to take your eyes off the road. If you have a Phone Edition device this is even handier, as you can tell it to call someone without endangering yourself and others by having to look at your handheld to dial.
Still, I’d be happier with this software if it did more. For example, it has a pretty good text-to-speech engine; it needs to be able to read you your email while you are driving. It potentially could even read you an ebook.
Update: I found out from someone on the development team for this application that they are considering opening up the API, which would allow developers to voice-enable their third-party applications, but a decision on this has not yet been made.
Voice Command does what it is supposed to do and does it well. Unfortunately, its feature set is currently too limited to be worth the high price.