Speech Recognition: Making Your Mac Listen to You

What? What? What is she talking about? My Mac of course. You can make it talk to you, which you may already know, but you can talk to it and make it do all kinds of cool things for you with its built-in support for speech recognition.

What kind of things? Well, you can make it open and close applications, or send documents, text from a Web page, an image, or a mail message you want to forward. You can ask it to look up phone numbers from your Address Book, or insert text into a document upon command.

Reader Tom Bonura wrote not long ago and told me about all the cool things you can ask your Mac to do for you with verbal commands. Tom worked for Apple at one time and helped write the code for the speech functions so he knows a lot about it and I greatly appreciate him taking the time to pass on all his knowledge.

Speech Recognition Preference Pane

The first thing you have to do to activate your Mac's speech capabilities is to set up the preferences. You just have to go through this process once and it is worth it. Start with the Speech Recognition Panel to turn on the Speakable Items option. You can find it by choosing Apple Menu > System Preferences > Speech. Next, click the Speech Recognition tab, then the Commands Tab, and finally click the On radio button for Speakable Items.

As soon as you click the radio button next to Speakable Items this Widget will appear on your desktop.

(Insider info: This widget was modeled after the badges worn in the original Star Trek series.)

Click the check boxes for those areas you will find the most useful for speech recognition. Try not to have everything turned on because it can get a bit unwieldy.You will need access to your Address Book, so be sure you have that one checked.

Clicking the Open Speakable Items button shows a list of all the general commands to which you have access.

Now Click on the Settings tab. The two most important things here are to set the Listening Key that turns listening, and therefore speaking on, and making sure your microphone is set appropriately. (I'll come back to the microphone.)

The default for speech is the Escape key. You can also use F5 - F12, Delete, numeric keypad keys, and most punctuation keys. You can also combine the Shift, Command, Option or Control key with any other key. I find the Escape key works perfectly for me because it is so easy to reach.

It is best to set the listening method to "Listen only while key is pressed." Otherwise you can answer the phone and really confuse your Mac because it will attempt to respond to what you are saying on the phone as if you were issuing commands. Granted, it could write the great American novel while you talk to your Mom, but it probably won't happen.

Hint: Press the key and wait a moment before you begin speaking and do the same at the end of your command. This solves all kinds of problems and helps keep your Mac from missing the beginning of what you say, or cutting off the end of your words.

Text to Speech Preference Pane

Click the "Text to Speech" tab and set up that Preference Pane. You have a basic set of five male and five female voices to choose from. You also will select a speaking rate that meets your personal needs.

Be sure to check the "Speak selected text when the key is pressed" option and then hit Set Key button and select a key combination that will activate it. You must select Command, Shift, Option, or Control, plus one other key.

To use this feature, simply highlight any selection of text in any application and press your activation key. Your Mac will read the selection for you. Note: This is a great proofreading tool.

To have your computer clock announce the time click on the Open Date & Time Preferences button. It takes you to the Date & Time Preference Pane. Click the Clock tab and put a check in the box next to Announce the time. Customize the time and voice as you choose with the On the quarter hour pop-up menu and the Customize Voice button.

Click on the back button in the upper left corner of the System Preferences window to return to the Speech pane.

The Microphones and The Environment

We really are going to get to the fun stuff. Just hang in there. The last thing you have to do is set up your microphone.

For this process to work successfully you need to calibrate your microphone. You may choose to use an external or internal microphone. If you do not have a quiet place to work, you may find it necessary to use a head mounted USB microphone. Bluetooth microphones are not recommended because the signal is compressed and won't necessarily be recognized.

To calibrate your microphone, select the Calibrate button in the Speech Recognition Preference Pane to display the Microphone Calibration window. The purpose is to let you get familiar with speaking to the computer. (Yes, this is quite different from "That is not what I wanted you to do!")

In your normal speaking voice, speak the phrases in the list on the left in the Microphone Calibration window. Don't hyper-articulate. When the computer recognizes the phrase it will blink three times. Move onto the next phrase. You are doing this to train the computer to your voice and to the room acoustics, so it is best to do this in your work environment. Press Done when you are satisfied that the phrases have been recognized.

At last, The Fun Stuff

Using The Widget

When you are using the Widget you will see blue, green and red bars in the window (strips). These are volume indicators. Blue is too soft, green is good, red is too loud.

Click the tiny triangle at the bottom of the Widget and you will see a menu that allows you to either open the speech preferences pane or see the available speech commands. They vary by application.

Following Are The Things You Can Control on Your Mac With Voice Commands:

  • Send documents, text from a Web page, an image, a Mail message you want to forward. Whatever. The word "this" is very significant when you want to send something to another person. It literally means the current selection.
  • Along with that is this important feature: any command that relates to a person will be based on information in your Address Book. Example ("Send this to...", or "Video chat with...") all assume names from your Address Book. You must use first and last names or nicknames if you have entered them.
    • Note: To add nicknames to your Address Book Entries do this:
      • Open an Address Book Entry
      • Click on Edit
      • Select Card from the Menu > Add Field > Nickname
      • The Nickname option will be added right below the name
    • To add the Nickname option to all your cards do this:
      • Open an Address Book Entry
      • Select Card from the Menu > Add Field > Edit Template > Add Field > Nickname
  • You can be very specific in your commands. For instance you can ask for:
    • Home phone number for ...
    • Mobile phone number for ... (note that in Address Book cell phones are called mobile phones.)
  • Make Selections of Text to be Inserted Upon Command.
    • You can create sections of text as small as your name and or address up to any size you wish.
      • Go into TextEdit and type something like your name and address.
      • Select it and say "Make this speakable"
      • In the dialog box which comes up, type in a phrase such as "Insert my return address" and indicate if you want the command to apply in any application or mail.
      • When you say "Insert my address" your name and address will be pasted in the frontmost window's insertion point
  • Make your own commands.
    • You can create your own commands by associating them with existing keyboard commands.
      • Say "Define a keyboard command" to associate a phrase with a key sequence. For example in many applications "Show fonts" is a menu item obtained by a Command-T.
      • Open an application such as TextEdit and say "Define a keyboard command." Enter your speech phrase, such as, "Show me the font menu" and then type in Command-T. You can make it a global command or specific to TextEdit.

It's lots to take in and practice, but if these are attributes that you need or want from your Mac the time to set the process up is well spent. It only takes a short time to put it all in place and it works well. If you have problems with your commands, it may be necessary for you to purchase a microphone headset. The kind of headset that has a small microphone attached that sits next to your mouth. If you make that kind of change, don't forget to recalibrate the microphone settings for your new microphone.

And many thanks again to Tom Bonura for sharing all his expertise on this subject.