THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Tech Lab

Results mixed on text by talking

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 1, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

Typing on your cellphone while driving could cost you $100 under a state ban against the practice that’s likely to become law. Technologies that let you text by talking can cost a lot less. But do they work? I’ve checked out a number of them recently, with mixed results.

Vlingo Corp. of Cambridge has one of the more attractive solutions. Vlingo Plus costs $10 for the iPhone and Google Inc.’s Android operating system, or $20 for the Nokia or BlackBerry editions.

Vlingo Plus can automatically read incoming text messages and e-mails. You don’t have to do anything. As soon as a message arrives, it’s read out in a metallic, female voice. Use a Bluetooth headset if you don’t want your passengers listening in, or turn off the automatic reading function.

Talking back isn’t altogether hands-free. On my BlackBerry Bold, it required pushing a button on the side of the phone. Then I ordered Vlingo to send a note to “Watha iPhone,’’ which is how my iPhone is listed in my BlackBerry’s address book.

It worked — sometimes. But after all these years, computers still have trouble understanding human language. With Vlingo and other speech-texting apps, I frequently had to repeat myself, even at home or in a quiet office. And the background noises of a moving car further reduced Vlingo’s accuracy. The system recognizes numbers better than words, so it helps to recite the phone number you’re trying to text, rather than the person’s name.

You must also say the correct command words. For instance, first say, “Message to,’’ followed by the name or number of the person you’re texting. Then say “message’’ again to start writing. Get it right, or Vlingo won’t understand.

A different texting service, VoiceAssist, doesn’t require a special software app. Subscribers, who pay $4.95 a month at VoiceAssist.com, register their personal phone numbers and upload a contact list onto the company’s server. Then, when they dial VoiceAssist, the network recognizes them. It will read incoming e-mails aloud or send text messages to contacts by voice. But the current version of VoiceAssist can’t read incoming text messages. The company says an upgrade is in the works.

I had slightly better luck with Voice On The Go. This service costs $6 a month, or $50 a year, at voiceonthego.com, and works with any phone, even a landline. It can also be controlled through a handy software app for iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Androids. Once again, Voice On The Go will send voice-generated text messages, but it won’t play back the replies. But the same company now offers DriveCarefully, a separate app that runs only on BlackBerry phones and can play incoming e-mails and text messages. It’s better than nothing, but incoming messages are played in a harsh and hasty digital voice. And since you never know when a message will be read, it’s easy to miss them, especially if you’re also fighting rush-hour traffic.

A better solution comes from ZoomSafer, maker of a $25 driver safety app that automatically locks a smartphone when it’s inside a moving car. At ZoomSafer.com, you can now buy an upgraded version featuring VoiceMate, a system for playing and responding to text messages. VoiceMate is available for BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones only and costs an additional $4 a month, or $40 a year, on top of the price of ZoomSafer.

The VoiceMate feature dials up a computer that will read your e-mails and text messages to you. The digital voice is still rather grating and rushed. But unlike with Vlingo or DriveCarefully, messages are only played when you ask for them, so you can pay attention. Of course, you can verbally reply to the messages, but as with the standard ZoomSafer program, all the phone’s other functions remain locked.

For texting addicts, ZoomSafer and Vlingo are the best of this bunch, but that’s not saying much. They all suffer from the usual mediocre accuracy of speech recognition products. Even in a quiet room, you must repeat yourself time and again. In a moving car, it gets worse. In fact, it’s almost as bad as trying to type on a cellphone at 70 miles per hour. Luckily, the ideal solution was invented decades ago: the parking brake.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.