Typing with Your Tongue – Voice to Text Technologies

This is the second in the series of tools and technologies that I use to deal with the loss of functionality in my hands and arms. Check out this article for the lead up to this series.

Setting the stage

The issue I’m dealing with involves muscle atrophy in my hands and my arms. As a result, I’ve lost a lot of strength in my hands and arms including my fingers. Some of the unintended or unplanned impacts included the inability to successfully type at times or diminished amount of time I can actually spend typing. I had previously used Logitech split keyboard which I loved. I consider myself a fairly good typist and used to be able to type and a code very effectively. With the onset of the atrophy, I encountered situations where my hands would actually stop working. I would be typing and then I couldn’t type anymore. Some of it is definitely related to physical exhaustion in the effort required given my condition. The first time this happened, was the first time I was concerned about my career.

As my condition has worsened, I have try to variety of software solutions that supported voice to text. In this blog I’m going to separate my voice to text solutions into two primary groups. The first group is those tools which I can use for dictation like creating this blog post or working with documents. The primary focus of this group of tools is to support the ability to add text while working on a computer with a mic. The second group of tools is primarily focused around note taking and using mobile tools on my phone or similar devices where I may not have access to the dictation tools I would you use in my normal work day. the one area that I am not going to cover in this blog post is related to voice automation tools or those tools which provide voice command capability. What I have found is that they are not the same. Currently I have not found a voice command solution that I like. As I do some more discovery in that area, I will share what I find.

Dictation tools

When my condition first surfaced, I immediately started thinking about how to do voice to text. The first software that came to mind with Dragon by Nuance. I started using Dragon as soon as we were able to get a professional account through work. The first thing I noticed about Dragon was that it felt like I had went backwards in time as it was not a updated piece of software or modernized. Dragon has been around a long time and services a lot of different areas of business including law and medical. It is a highly valuable tool in those spaces and has specialty products for some of those with specific terminology support.

DragonBar

What I liked about Dragon is that it has an extensive editing capability built into the software. This is particularly true if you use their special dialog box to create most of your content. That being said, you really need to have a good microphone to efficiently run Dragon. The other issue that I had was when we upgraded to Windows 11, it was not supported. This will likely change as Microsoft has purchased the product in recent months and will likely incorporate a lot of it into its own platform. I reverted to Windows 10 to determine how much I would use it. The biggest issue I had was the requirement for a high-quality microphone that would likely need to be on a headset to operate well.

With the switch to Windows 11, I needed to find alternative options and I turned to Microsoft to see what they had available. It turns out that Microsoft has two voice to text solutions that work in Windows 10 and 11. (These solutions may work in other versions of Windows, but I don’t use them.) The first tool I explored and worked with was Dictate that is available from Microsoft 365.

Dictate In Word

In particular, Dictate inside of Word. I immediately liked this tool because it is built-in to the Office platform. It also seemed to learn more quickly than Dragon did through general use which is likely to do the AI behind it. I also appreciate the fact I could use the open microphone effectively without making changes to my environment. I am writing this blog post in Word first because of the capabilities of Dictate. It is not without flaws, and the biggest issue I have with Microsoft 365 Dictate is that it does not know how to capitalize mid-sentence or to choose a word to capitalize. This seems like a significant oversight that many have complained about through the years of using this product. Hopefully Microsoft will resolve this soon as it seems like an oversight. I did discover that there is a change case option in text editing available in Word that has allowed me to handle this situation easily.

Change case in Word

I’m still learning Dictate and its capabilities but overall, it has been the most fluid solution I’ve used to date.

When Dictate is not available outside of the Office 365 suite. In that case, I use the Microsoft voice typing that you can find by hitting Windows+H.

Windows voice typing box

This will allow you to do voice dictation to any text box well, most text boxes. I use this for dictating messages in Teams, forms on websites, and similar type of functionality. This is not as capable as Dictate in Office, for example delete does not work the same way in the two tools. However, it too seems to learn my speech and respond well to the open mic which is why I have chosen to use it.

Before I move away from the dictation tooling, I want to add that in the Office suite I’ve been able to effectively use Dictate in Outlook. This has been very helpful in creating emails. Depending on where you are in Outlook you may or may not have Dictate available to you in which case you can always use voice typing. Dictate also works effectively in OneNote. The functionality in PowerPoint is severely lacking and I don’t know why. It does not seem to figure out what I’m trying to say most of the time when I’m working with this in PowerPoint. So, this is kind of frustrating when creating presentations but overall, the effectiveness in Outlook and Word have kept me quite productive.

In summary, if Dragon works for you and how you work it is likely the best tool for the job. With Microsoft purchase of Dragon, we can expect to see some of that functionality move into this Office suite is my expectation or into Windows directly. If you are like me and prefer using an open mic, you will find that the Microsoft 365 Dictate and Windows voice typing tools are more likely a better fit but still have significant gaps to fill.

Notetaking and mobile

I kind of grouped these together because of how I function. One of the immediate impacts of my condition is that I am no longer able to take handwritten notes. This has been a huge hit as most of the time I used a lot of pen and paper for design work, notetaking, etc. Losing this capability was a significant hit to my productivity. As a result, I needed to find alternatives.

Otter on Android

The first tool I added to my toolbox on my phone was Otter. This product was introduced to me by a peer at 3Cloud. It allows you to record and transcribe conversations so that you have notes from that conversation as well as the recording. It does are pretty good job in transcription frankly. I’ve used it to take notes during meetings, to take notes while working with my doctors, and just self-transcribed notes. I use exclusively on my phone and then transfer the notes to OneNote when I want to use them with other tools. This has been a lifesaver in particular in regard to doctors’ appointments. It has helped me keep track of that information and because of the transcription we can transfer that into other documents or even onto my CaringBridge site when we need exact details.

On my phone, I also use Google’s built in voice text technology and Samsung’s technology as I have a Galaxy phone. I will say this as hit or miss and often and it’s a little bit of fun to my text with my family for sure. However, it is still easier to use voice to text as opposed to typing on the device itself. So, I’m thankful that it works even if it stumbles a lot more than some of these other tools. Dragon does have a mobile option as well, but I did not get it working so I can’t really speak to its functionality at this point.

Summary of my new world

I still need to type to do my job. Part of my job entails building some technical labs which require coding. Coding is not easily done with voice to text or maybe we should say should not be done with voice to text. However, as intellisense and similar functionality has become more prevalent in the tools, it has reduced the stress on my hands when creating code. There’s new functionality from Microsoft in GitHub called copilot and similar tools that use AI to suggest code. For the moment I haven’t had a chance to test these functionalities out but I’m looking forward to seeing how they to improve my work environment. I would always recommend that you let people know that you’re using voice to text in particular when you’re using it in Teams or other chatting type environments. This means you don’t have to go back and correct everything you do all the time. People are forgiving and occasionally we get some really good fun like calling “Dennis” “dentist”. He wasn’t one, or so he says.

Before I end, I would like to say that this is not just helpful for those of us who struggle typing. You may find the dictation tools for example in Word to be a way to generate documents rather quickly. Just keep in mind:

  • plan to edit some
  • take your time
  • learn the tool
  • find success

I hope this helps someone out there. If you have found a tool that uses voice to text more efficiently or differently than when I’ve talked about I’d love to hear about it. Just add it in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

When is a mouse not a mouse?

This is the first in the series of tools and technologies that I use to deal with the loss of functionality in my hands and arms. Check out this article for the lead up to this series.

Setting the stage

The issue I’m dealing with involves muscle atrophy in my hands and my arms. As a result, I’ve lost a lot of strength in my hands and arms including my fingers. Some of the unintended or unplanned impacts included the inability to successfully type at times (more on that later) and what feels like cramping in my hand when holding a mouse for too long. I was using a nice Logitech mouse for most of my work. I have also used the Surface Arc mouse from Microsoft. I liked Arc mouse because it traveled very well because you can flatten it. The Logitech mouse and split keyboard were a part of my standard home office setup.

An older picture of my setup with the Logitech mouse and keyboard

As a condition worsened, I found myself struggling to use a mouse longer than half hour to an hour at a time. I would work with the mouse and then eventually I would start unintentionally clicking the buttons and was unable to actually move it. The level of frustration caused by working that way is pretty high.

Large trackpad try out

Because the problem appeared to be around the fact that I was holding the mouse, my first thought was to try a larger trackpad. This would allow me to use both hands and fingers effectively to manipulate the mouse on the computer. What I found was it just transferred the problem. My lack of finger control and the cramp in my hand still existed while using the trackpad.

Enter the roller bar mouse

A friend of ours works with hand specialists back in Minneapolis. She suggested we check out something called the RollerMouse. It’s an interesting tool. (One thing to note here is that all of these tools cost something. Trying to find the right tools to work is not inexpensive. Hopefully some of this information will help you save some money. ) I went online and did some research about how it’s supposed to help. A lot of the reviews talked about folks with arthritis or other similar conditions which impact their ability to work with a mouse for an extended period of time. Including the fact that they could have shoulder issues and so on. That being said, I decided to give it a try.

The RollerMouse Red that I purchased

It is a completely different way to work with the mouse functionality on your computer. Many of the reviews talked about the two-week learning cycle that was required to be effective. I found that I was affective using the mouse within a couple of hours. I do think this was related to the fact that I struggle so much to work with a traditional mouse or trackpad. The roller bar effectively supports a three-screen solution including two 34-inch monitors. The side-to-side motion of the bar navigates seamlessly from one screen to the other.

Beyond that the buttons are awesome! Naturally there are the left and right click buttons in the center of the bar. The bar itself functions as a left click which is a very natural function when working with the mouse. There is the scroll wheel in the middle which works like a scroll wheel on a normal mouse. Now it gets interesting. At the center in the bottom is a double click button. I did not know if I’d actually use this, but I find myself using it especially when switching hands while using the mouse. The steepest part of my learning curve has been effectively using the buttons. I must keep in mind that the cursor placement is where the clicks will occur, not the last place I had clicked. Up next, they have the copy and paste buttons right above the left and right clicks. In a later blog I will talk about speech to text functionality but having shortcut buttons for copy and paste means I did not have to do the Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V patterns on the keyboard. Which is great! All the buttons are programmable. This means you can change them if you have a better pattern that works for you. So far, I’ve only changed one button, the scroll button click. I use it to turn on dictation in Word.

It changed the way I work

To say that this has changed the way that I work and allowed me to work longer is the understatement of the year. I am still working through other tools and devices to continue to help me be productive. But to date this is by far, the best investment I have made. If you’re experiencing issues manipulating a mouse in the traditional fashion or anything that requires you to potentially either switch hands to give yourself a break or just because it’s hard sometimes to use a mouse and move it, this is a great solution for you. The mouse is stationary and has a nice wrist pad for you to work on. The ability to switch hands allows me to get the break I need on either hand at any given time. With this mouse I am able to stay more productive than I ever thought I was going to be able to win the started. As you can see, I’m a real fan.

My new desk set up with the RollerMouse in the middle

For those of you that aren’t dealing with issues and are wondering should you use it? If you want to experience a different method of working with a mouse and get rid of moving around mouse is on your desk or touching a trackpad this is a great solution. I personally think I would have fallen in love with this solution much earlier had I known about it. Now you know about it!

I love to hear from you if this was helpful and if you’ve decided to give this a try. For those of you suffering with carpal tunnel or arthritis come on give this a serious consideration. It is on the pricey side, but I will tell you in this case it may be worth it.

The Impact of Change

I started this summary on LinkedIn. Check out that article here. I only used LinkedIn to introduce what is happening, if you’re interested in learning more keep reading.

Kristyna Hughes

First, I have to say thank you to my daughter Kristyna, who has been contributing regularly to our Data on Wheels blog in my absence. I’m amazed at quality and depth of the content she has provided to the community including blogs on the tabular object model and C#. I’m glad she is able to provide great content for the data community.

3Cloud has been a key partner in my journey so far. Early in the diagnosis we were not sure if this was ALS. Frankly, we are still not sure if it will lead to that eventually. 3Cloud has stepped in and helped me find a place where I can contribute and support our teams as we continue to grow our business in data and analytics. For that I can say I am supremely thankful. This has allowed me to adapt to my new circumstances and continue to contribute in meaningful way.

Now we get a little more personal, I can say nothing but great things about my wife, Sheila. She has had to step up as a caregiver in ways that we were not expecting. Sheila has been my rock through this as well as my support when I really needed it. From helping me get ready for the day to keeping me going through the day, she has been magnificent through it all. What we do not know is what God has planned for us or what the next stage will be for me as we move forward. We can only trust him every day for what is next.

As a part of this process, we have moved from Minnesota to Kentucky to be closer to my family. That move was interesting. We had a lot of ups and downs as we went along, and I have my adult children to thank for a lot of the help throughout those weeks. We also had many friends help us with packing and prepping because I could not do much at all. They were very gracious and gave us time on their weekends and helped us make this move. When we got to Kentucky my kids did the lion’s share of unloading which was unexpected. With their help we were able to get moved in quickly. They have helped with painting, clean up, and unpacking throughout it all. I have watched my wife and daughters pick up new skills to fill the void where I would have normally done the work. It’s pretty impressive really. Other family members have also stepped up to help as needed which has been great as well.

We are in Frankfort

So, what does that mean for the blog? Well, Kristyna will continue to write on topics that she loves. I will contribute when I can on technical content. But I will also be providing reviews of various tools and technologies I have tried or used through this journey. I hope that some of these reviews will help some of you out there who may have similar or related issues. And maybe someone will find a tool that will be super helpful to them. I look forward to sharing this journey as we move forward.

If you made it this far, thank you for giving me some of your time and lending me your ear. If you want to know more about the personal side of this journey, you can check it out on CaringBridge. I look forward to getting back out in community and connecting with many of you along the way.