Fast Company

Action Item - Talk Back to Me

Gadgets and applications that make your computer more human.

No, you can't turn your desktop computer into the machine from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But First Byte's MONOLOGUE '97 can make your PC read to you - which will relieve the eyestrain caused by gazing into your monitor, and let you do other tasks while the machine drones on.

How It Works: The program features voices, called "SpeechFonts," that read back text copied into a Windows clipboard. The male and female voices sound quite mechanical, but you can adjust the pitch and volume.

You Need: Windows 95, 98, or NT 4.x; a sound card; and speakers.

Best Feature Monologue: works with popular programs like Microsoft Office 97, Lotus 1-2-3, and WordPro 97. To read a document, just click the "Speak" button on the toolbar.

Best Use: Proofreading an Excel spreadsheet becomes a simple task: The program reads out the numbers, and you check them against the original printout.

Coordinates: $59.95. First Byte, 800-757-7707, www.fbyte.com

Point and Talk

Mark Lucente, a 34-year-old scientist at IBM Research, stands in front of a large projection display, waves his hand, and issues a spoken command: "Move it there." Instantly, a rotating globe moves across the screen. "Make it smaller," he says, and the globe shrinks.

This Merlin-like demonstration once would have required a supercomputer running cutting-edge software. Today Lucente accomplishes the trick using a standard IBM PC with spatial-tracking software, an off-the-shelf copy of ViaVoice, and a camera. We asked him to explain where natural computing is headed.

Your demonstration looks cool, but why not accomplish the same thing with a mouse and keyboard?

"People chain them-selves to a desktop PC to do word processing. But there are a dozen other ways in which we could control our computers, such as through eye movements or hand gestures."

How will natural computing help us in practical terms?

"People are already highly skilled at using speech and gestures to communicate with each other. The goal is to enable people to use those same skills to communicate with their computers."

How long before the rest of us use natural computing in our daily lives?

"The speech-recognition part is already here. Between 5 and 10 years from now, you won't even remember a time when your computer couldn't see or hear you."

Coordinates: IBM Research, http://www.research.ibm.com/natural/dreamspace

Hands-Free Computing

The mouse-free, keyboardless computer remains a dream in the minds of researchers, but you can glimpse the future today on your own PC. All you need is a computer with a video camera connected to it - and a little patience.

FreeAction is a "user interface" technology developed by Reality Fusion. It promises to let you play games without a joystick, open files without a mouse, and move around inside virtual rooms simply by pointing.

I downloaded a free, two-day trial version of the company's VarietyPack. It includes four rudimentary Windows 95 games. One lets you pop images of bubbles just by pointing at them; another lets you punch a clown by moving your arms in front of the camera.

The games are a little childish, but the implications of the technology are far-reaching. Just imagine combing the Internet without having to click on links. Your virtual self could browse the wares at a cyberstore and select items with a wave of your hand. (You can also get the VarietyPack as part of Intel's Create & Share Camera Pack.)

Coordinates: $29.95. FreeAction, Reality Fusion Inc., 408-420-0520, www.realityfusion.com; $179. Create & Share Camera Pack, Intel Corp., www.intel.com/createshare/crshare.htm

Surf without a Mouse

I treat the Web like an online library. Trouble is, I need to write and take notes while I surf, and that makes me wish for another pair of hands. Natural computing hasn't come that far, but it can offer the next best thing: software that responds to voice commands - and leaves your hands free to type.

Conversá Web (pronounced "con-ver-SAY web") is a voice-recognition program that works with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 (or later), as well as with most sound cards and microphones. The program identifies Web links and helps you go from one to the next. When you want to jump to another item, simply read the name of the link out loud, and Conversá Web will take you there.

To get to sites you've already bookmarked, you simply say, "show favorites," and up pops a list of sites that you visit regularly. Then say the name of the site, and the software takes you where you need to be.

Conversá Web provides plenty of prompts - for example, it highlights links before jumping to the next page - so that I never got lost. When the phone rang, I simply said, "Conversá , go to sleep," and the program shut down.

Coordinates: $29.95 to download from the Web, $39.95 for a CD-ROM. Conversational Computing Corp., 888-487-4373, www.conversa.com

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