Computer, Can You Hear Me? (MacBook)

Remember that classic scene from the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in which Scotty picks up the mouse on a Macintosh and tries to talk directly to the computer? Since the very early days of the Mac OS, Apple has included some form of speech recognition in its computers. Snow Leopard continues to improve on speech recognition by offering a host of tools that let you get more work done in a shorter amount of time. (We’re not to that point yet, Scotty, but we’re working on it.)
The Speech Recognition features of Mac OS X let you speak a word, phrase, or sentence. After you’ve spoken, your MacBook goes to work translating what you said — and if it understands the phrase, it then performs an action associated with that phrase. The great part about this system is that you can say any phrase in continuous speech and have your MacBook perform any sort of action that you can imagine. In fact, you aren’t limited to just one action: You can perform dozens of actions upon speaking a particular phrase.
Before you get started using Speech Recognition, you need a microphone to get sound into your MacBook. All current MacBook models have a built-in microphone.
If you’re looking for the best quality audio input for use with iChat or GarageBand, check out a microphone with a USB connection. You’ll get far better sound quality than a microphone that connects to your analog jack.

The Speech Recognition tab

To get started with Speech Recognition in Mac OS X, open the System Preferences window by clicking its icon in the Dock and then clicking the Speech icon. This brings up the Speech pane, as shown in Figure 3-1.
You’ll find that two tabs comprise the speech settings of Mac OS X:
♦ Speech Recognition
♦ Text to Speech
In this section, I’m concerned only with the Speech Recognition tab. Later, in the “Your Mac Talks Back!” section, I explore the Text to Speech tab.
Hail and well met, good Speech pane (and Feedback window)!
Figure 3-1:
Hail and well met, good Speech pane (and Feedback window)!

The Speech Recognition pane contains two tabs:

♦ Settings: The Settings pane provides a number of settings that control how your Macbook listens to Its Master’s Voice. (Meaning you, friend reader.) From here, you can set the sound input, adjust the key on the keyboard that toggles speech recognition on and off, change microphone settings, and name your computer with a keyword. (You do want to call your computer by name as any techno-wizard does, don’t you?)
♦ Commands: When Speech Recognition is active, your MacBook can understand any number of commands. From the Commands tab, you tell the laptop what type of command it should expect you to give. You can also specify whether you’ll be giving the commands word for word or your MacBook should be prepared to interpret paraphrasing. A number of specific applications and menus can be configured with speakable items, such as contact names within Snow Leopard’s Address topic.
Crowning the Speech Recognition pane are the Speakable Items On and Off radio buttons. You’ve probably already guessed how to use ‘em to switch Speech Recognition features on and off.
When you select the On radio button, the small circular Speech Recognition Feedback window appears on your screen, floating above all other windows. Know this face well because the Feedback window (also shown in Figure 3-1) is your friend and partner. If you use Speech Recognition often, it’ll become a constant companion on your Desktop. (More on it in the next section.)

The Settings pane

At the bottom of the Settings pane is the Upon Recognition section. When your MacBook comprehends one of your stentorian commands, you can set it to respond by playing a sound, speaking a confirmation, or both. This is helpful when you’re not sure whether your MacBook understands you. One hundred percent recognition isn’t a reality on any computer at this point, so sometimes it helps to have any feedback you can get. Otherwise, you might feel silly shouting at your machine while it sits there doing nothing. (Or perhaps not, if you’re into really inexpensive anger management.)
You can choose between two styles of listening with the Listening Method options:
♦ Listen Only While Key Is Pressed: Speech Recognition works only while the designated key is held down.
♦ Listen Continuously with Keyword: When you speak the keyword, listening turns on and remains on.
To change what key must be toggled or held down, click the Change Key button.
Why change the keyword? Instead of saying, “Computer, empty the Trash!” you might prefer, “Elrond, empty the Trash!” This adds a little bit of personality to the interaction and also gives your computer a slightly longer time to react to your command. (As a general rule, the longer the spoken phrase, the more likely your MacBook will understand it.) If you select the Listen Continuously with Keyword feature, you can change your computer’s name via the Keyword text box.
Finally, you can select the microphone that you want to use from the Microphone pop-up menu on the Settings pane — a great feature if you have more than one microphone connected to your MacBook. Click the Calibrate key to adjust the sound volume for better recognition.

The Commands pane

When Speech Recognition is active, your Mac listens for whatever phrases appear in your Speakable Items folder (a directory on your hard drive that holds a number of scripts). The Commands pane (shown in Figure 3-2) allows you to view the contents of this folder. When you speak a phrase that matches one of these filenames, your Mac automatically executes that script. The script can perform any number of actions, which is what makes Speech Recognition so powerful. Apple includes a large number of scripts with Mac OS X, but you’re free to create your own, too.
The Commands pane
Figure 3-2:
The Commands pane
allows you to specify which commands your Mac should hear.
To make something speakable, select the item and then speak the command “Make this speakable.” The new speakable command is based upon the item’s name.
To view the contents of the Speakable Items folder, click the Open Speakable Items Folder button on the Commands pane. The Finder comes to the foreground and navigates to the folder that holds the scripts. This is handy because each item in the Speakable Items folder is speakable.
To the right of the Open Speakable Items Folder button is another button: Helpful Tips. Click it to get some pointers on how to get the best performance from your microphone.
As I mention in the preceding section, the Speech Recognition features of Mac OS X aren’t restricted to items in the Speakable Items folder. Any application that supports Speech Recognition is also fair game for your verbal manipulation. To control commands within other applications, use the Commands pane (refer to Figure 3-2). Here you can select the following check boxes:
♦ Address topic
♦ Global Speakable Items
♦ Application Specific Items
♦ Application Switching
♦ Front Window (requires that you activate assistive devices in the Universal Access pane within System Preferences)
♦ Menu Bar (requires that you activate assistive devices in the Universal Access pane within System Preferences)
any one of these options to allow your MacBook to listen to those kinds of commands.

The Feedback window

After you activate Speech Recognition, you instantly see the Feedback window. You can click and drag the edge of the window to position it anywhere on your Desktop.
The Feedback window includes controls and displays of its own:
♦ Microphone Level Meter: The Feedback window displays indicators to let you know how loud the input to your microphone is.
♦ Visual Indicator: The Feedback window displays visual feedback to let you know what mode it is in: idle, listening, or hearing a command. When the microphone isn’t grayed out but there are no arrows on either side of the microphone, you’re in listening mode. When the microphone is flanked by animated arrows, your computer is hearing a command spoken. When Speech Recognition is idle, no arrows are present and the microphone is grayed out.
♦ Quick-Access Menu: You can quickly access the Speech preferences for the System or view the Speech Commands window. Just click the downward-pointing arrow at the bottom of the Feedback window, and a menu appears, giving you one-click access to both.
As soon as you disable speech recognition in the System Preferences, the Feedback window disappears.

The Speech Command window

Because Speech Recognition might be listening for different sets of commands from the Finder or many other applications, Mac OS X provides you with a single listing of all commands that you might speak at any given time: the Speech Commands window. To open the Speech Commands window, click the triangle at the bottom of the Feedback window and choose Open Speech Commands Window from the menu that appears.
The Speech Commands window is a simple one, but it serves an important purpose: to let you know what commands Mac OS X understands. The Speech Commands pane, as shown in Figure 3-3, organizes commands into categories that match the settings in the Speech pane of the System Preferences.
If you launch another application that supports Speech Recognition, Mac OS X adds that application’s commands to the Speech Commands window. Speak any of these commands to make your Mac execute that function. For example, Mac OS X ships with speech commands for Address topic, such as
Mail To and Video Chat With.
The Speech Commands window, hard at work.
Figure 3-3:
The Speech Commands window, hard at work.
If you launch another application that supports Speech Recognition, Mac OS X adds that application’s commands to the Speech Commands window. Speak any of these commands to make your Mac execute that function. For example, Mac OS X ships with speech commands for Address topic, such as

Mail To and Video Chat With.

Apple might be a big, serious, computer company — yeah, right — but it isn’t without a humorous side! With Speech Recognition enabled, say the phrase, “Tell me a joke.” Your MacBook replies with a random joke. Say it again, and your Macbook tells you another joke. (Brace yourself, these jokes were likely written by preschoolers . . . they’re really, really bad.) Oh, and if you get a “Knock, Knock” joke, remember that you

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