The Art of Computing, Naturally

From the beginning, computing has been an unnatural act. But now technology is emerging that makes your machine more human.

Some say that Bill Gates tyrannizes the world of PC users. I disagree. The tyranny we all live under is the tyranny of the personal computer itself. Like a puffed up dictator, the PC governs the way we work with complete totality, commanding us to "click here" or to "type in there." We are constantly changing our work style to suit the needs of a machine. Isn't it about time that the machine adapted to our needs? Fortunately, a growing number of applications aim to help us take control of our virtual desktops.

So-called "natural computing" programs - such as software that lets you speak to your PC or that identifies you to your computer - promise to increase computer security, to reduce carpal-tunnel syndrome, to boost productivity, and to make working with PCs a lot less frustrating.

Is all of this great stuff ready for prime time? Not quite. But some of it is good enough to accomplish specific tasks - enabling people, for example, to write reports by speaking to their PC instead of pounding away on their keyboard. So hang in there. I'll show you what's "natural," and what's not, about these newfangled programs and devices.

Its Master's Voice

Speech-recognition software has been a hot market since Dragon Systems released its NaturallySpeaking software last summer. IBM chimed in with a similar product, ViaVoice, soon afterward. Both programs run on Windows, and both enable you to dictate your ruminations instead of typing them into your PC. The results can seem magical - but think about your needs before buying either of these programs.

NaturallySpeaking Preferred ($159) and ViaVoice Gold ($149) both claim an accuracy rate of 95%, but in my experience, the rate is closer to 90%. Which means that 1 out of 10 words comes out wrong. For example, one program wrote "might mail" when I said "email." Such miscues are funny at first but infuriating later.

The companies also claim that the programs can handle up to 150 or 160 words of dictation per minute. Don't believe them. My best efforts produced about 90 words per minute. With enough caffeine in me, I can type nearly as fast - and with fewer errors.

These caveats aside, NaturallySpeaking and ViaVoice can be godsends. For people suffering from carpal-tunnel syndrome, they can bring relief from the pain of typing. And the software is certainly good enough for those who work in a quiet, enclosed space. (Noisy, open office environments can reduce the programs' accuracy considerably.)

Of the two packages, I found that NaturallySpeaking Preferred was slightly better at following my dictation than the IBM product. When necessary, I could also quickly edit text by using simple voice commands, such as "scratch that."

While ViaVoice Gold sometimes made me resort to mouse and keyboard action to make edits, it proved equal to most tasks. Its strong suit is its ability to communicate easily with other programs, including Word, Corel, Excel, WordPerfect, and SmartSuite. (Dragon's software works with Word 97 and WordPerfect.)

If one of these programs fits your work environment, use a system with at least a 200-MHz Pentium processor and 64 MB of RAM.

Coordinates: NaturallySpeaking Preferred, Dragon Systems Inc., 800-437-2466, http://www.naturalspeech.com; ViaVoice Gold, IBM Corp., 800-825-5263, http://www.ibm.com/viavoice

Read My Finger

Quick: recite all your passwords, pins, and security codes. You might be able to do it, but I sure can't. Like most people, I use obvious PINs, or else I come up with hard-to-crack passwords and write them down. And that makes me vulnerable to hackers and plain old-fashioned thieves. The good news is, I don't have to remember all that data anymore, now that a new method of personal identification is at hand.

Fingerprint-identification systems - once limited to the realm of "Mission: Impossible" - have come to the PC. One of the most usable of these so-called "biometric" security devices is the BioMouse Desktop Fingerprint Scanner ($299). Slightly larger than an ordinary desktop mouse, it plugs into a parallel port and uses software that works with Windows 95 or 98, Windows NT, and several flavors of Unix. The BioMouse stores "data points" that make a match with your finger.

You can use any finger you like. Just give the system three impressions of it, and you're all set. You can then use a "fingerprint logon" in place of your Windows password.

Comparable to the BioMouse is the SecureStart/98 ($679) for Windows 95 or 98, a fingerprint reader that plugs into a serial port. As with the BioMouse, you enroll your finger of choice, and the device locks out anyone who can't offer a print of that finger.

This package costs more than the BioMouse - in part because its fingerprint-identification unit, made by Sony, contains its own processor and memory bank. The SecureStart/98 folks are also working on a version that could send fingerprint templates over the Internet, thereby identifying you whenever you want to log onto a secure Web site.

Meanwhile, the people who make the BioMouse have just introduced a fingerprint reader that also works with smart cards. Called the BioMouse Plus ($349), it gives you the option of keeping your fingerprint file on a smart card, so that the card will "unlock" only when you put your finger on the reader. That way, you can safely store multiple PINs on the card.

Coordinates: BioMouse Desktop Fingerprint Scanner and BioMouse Plus, American Biometric Co., 888-246-6687, http://www.abio.com; SecureStart/98, I/O Software Inc., 800-800-7970, http://www.iosoftware.com/fiu

Face Time

Computers are, by nature, promiscuous. Anybody can turn them on, as long as he or she knows which buttons to push. Fortunately, with new face-recognition programs, you can teach your computer to respond only to your smile.

The face-recognition programs that I tested require a color video camera and run easily on Windows 95. First up was TrueFace PC ($59.95), from Miros. It works with inexpensive video cameras like the Connectix Color QuickCam VC. I had the entire setup installed and running within 30 minutes.

To get TrueFace to recognize my amiable countenance, I typed in my name and sat still while it took several snapshots. Thereafter, only I could access my computer - by typing in my name and waiting for the software to compare images from a live video stream with images in its memory. Activating this "face logon" took just a couple of seconds.

If you're worried about someone sneaking a peek at your screen when you step away from your desk, you can set TrueFace to kick in automatically whenever your screensaver comes on. You can even set the software to take snapshots of would-be intruders, thereby turning your PC into a private surveillance system.

One drawback: To launch your computer, TrueFace requires that you sit in front of the camera and then click an onscreen box. The FaceIt PC package ($59.95 to download it; $99.95 for a CD-ROM, camera not included), from Visionics, eliminates this extra step.

FaceIt can automatically scan your face, even when you're moving around. As with TrueFace, you can unlock the screensaver simply by sitting in front of the camera. If you're coming back from a break, the software automatically returns the screen to the file you were working on - without requiring any effort on your part.

FaceIt also lets you leave a short video greeting on your computer. Then, when someone comes looking for you, the software prompts the visitor to type in a message for you and attaches the message to a picture of the visitor's face.

It's a perfect app for someone like me, who always forgets people's names.

Face-recognition programs are not without their shortcomings. In my tests, differences in lighting sometimes confused the software - and locked me out of my own computer. You can avoid this fate by recording images of your face at different times of day.

In the future, face-recognition software will get even more personal. Already a company called QVoice has coupled the Visionics program with voice-authentication software and a Trekkie interface. The Star Trek Biometric Security package ($80) includes Star Trek graphics and issues a "red alert" wail if unauthorized personnel try to get into your system. (Parents can use the program to keep kids from cruising the Net.) If you want a more businesslike look, check out QVoice's Who IS It! ($80), which has many of the same features but uses what the company calls "FBI-style" graphics. By September, QVoice plans to add yet another level of security: fingerprint recognition.

If you think that having a computer recognize you is more than a little unnerving, then prepare to be really frightened. Marketers are already thinking about retail applications in which a store camera would identify you to the cash register, which would in turn tell the salesperson which types of books you read and which kinds of videos you like.

But I'm not worried. I'm thinking about hooking up a surveillance camera that would automatically open my front door for me - but keep out annoying salespeople.

Coordinates: TrueFace PC, Miros Inc., 781-235-0330, http://www.miros.com; FaceIt PC, Visionics Corp., 201-332-9213, http://www.faceit.com; StarTrek Biometric Security and Who IS It!, QVoice Inc., 973-786-6878, http://www.qvtrek.com

Contributing Editor John R. Quain (http://www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News's "Up to the Minute" and can be seen on CNBC's "The Edge." he lives in New York City.

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