Browse the Web hands free

June 28, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

I tried my first speech recognition program back in 1984. It was in a cartridge that plugged into my Radio Shack Color Computer, and it had a 64-word vocabulary. Occasionally, it would even guess right when I said one of those 64 words. Mostly, it guessed wrong.

The state of the art has moved a long way since then. If you have a reasonably fast computer with enough memory, Dragon Naturally Speaking, IBM's Via Voice and Lehnart & Hauspie's Voice Express will all do a decent job of taking dictation and turning it into something resembling usable text.

Unfortunately, these programs gobble up computing power and require that you spend substantial time training them to recognize your voice. Their accuracy rate -- though remarkable by standards of 1984 -- still isn't good enough to make them worth the effort if you're a decent typist. In fact, unless you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or some other condition that makes it difficult or impossible to type, you'll probably find it's still faster to navigate the old-fashioned way -- with keyboard and mouse.

But there are exceptions to this rule, and Conversa Web 3.0 is one of them. This $59.95 voice-activated browser doesn't try to do everything. It lets you surf the World Wide Web by telling your computer where you want to go, which it does almost flawlessly -- with no training on your part. Instead of hunching in front of your screen, pawing at a mouse, you can sit back, relax and talk your way through cyberspace.

When I first tried Conversa Web a little over a year ago, I thought it had a few shortcomings, which the latest release addresses with varying degrees of success. The new version adds interactive-talk features that are fun to fool around with but still too buggy for prime time.

First things first. Conversa Web is an add-in program that takes over Microsoft's Internet Explorer and remakes it into a voice-friendly application. The program CD comes with Internet Explorer 5.0, but it will work with IE4 if you have it installed and don't care to upgrade. Unfortunately, there's no Netscape version.

Unlike all-purpose speech recognition software, Conversa Web will work on relatively modest hardware -- a 166 MHz Pentium machine running Win 95/98 or NT with at least 32 megabytes of memory (64 megs recommended). You'll need a sound card, of course, and a microphone. Conversa supplies a headset mike with the package.

When you start Conversa Web, you'll see an odd-looking version of Internet Explorer appear on your screen (don't worry, you can use your regular version of IE, too). Instead of the standard row of buttons at the top, there's a row of what Conversa calls "SayIcons," small pictures illustrating the programs's most common built-in commands, such as "Go to home page," "Search the Web" and "Refresh Page."

All you have to do is say it and Conversa Web will do it. Among the 32 internal commands are functions for scrolling through pages, going forward or backward and displaying your favorites list.

But Conversa Web works its real magic with Web pages themselves. To activate a link, all you do is say it out loud. For example, if the page contains a link that says "SunSpot" (the Sun's Web site), just say "Sunspot." The link will flash briefly on the screen and your browser will take you there. Given the fact that it never knows beforehand what's going to be displayed on a page, Conversa Web's accuracy is amazing.

The program deals cleverly with links tied to graphics instead of text, which are all too common on today's bloated Web pages. It assigns a numbered tag to each graphics-based link -- you just say the number aloud (as in "Number 4"). Conversa now uses numbered tags to distinguish between text-based links that have identical or near-identical wording, an improvement over earlier versions.

Previous Conversa Web releases contained one glaring omission -- they forced you to return to the keyboard and mouse to enter a Web address directly into the bar at the top of the browser or to fill in an on-screen form. In Version 3, you can enter information by spelling it aloud using a military alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc.) This is still awkward, but with a little practice I was able to make it work. Users whose typing ability is impaired will undoubtedly love it.

Conversa Web 3.0 adds a wrinkle -- it can talk to you and read the links on a page (although it can't read other text on a screen). Conversa is pushing this feature further by offering Web designers tools to create talking pages.

Conversa's Web site offers a dozen examples, only two of which worked without producing JavaScript errors on my browser. One displayed the local weather when I said "Baltimore, Maryland." The other allowed me to talk my way through a game of Battleship with a virtual opponent who punctuated each shot with an annoying comment delivered in that vaguely Eastern European accent that computer-generated voices affect.

The Talk Radio concept needs a lot of work, but Conversa delivers beautifully with the rest of the package. It's a novel and relaxing way to browse the Web.

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