Voice recognition technology has come of age, and not just on the desktop - now you can talk to your phone as well as your callers, in multiple languages too.
Of course, you don't need a relatively expensive program such as Dragon to talk to your PC: voice recognition software is built into newer versions of operating systems such as Windows and MacOS. This is fairly basic stuff, but should let you issue commands and get a feel for what is possible.
Voice recognition is also built into the latest smartphones, though here the actual speech processing is rarely done on the phone; instead, Vlingo - like Google Voice Search and Apple's'Siri - offloads that work into the cloud, which means you need a working Internet connection, and can result in a slight delay. The benefits can be'great, however. This is especially true if you are driving,'but many users will simply find pleasure in not having to peck at an on-screen keyboard.
Vlingo's recognition was very good for commands, app names and common words, though it was sometimes less accurate for more natural speech, for example where consecutive words ended and started with the same consonant.
It did recommend formal ways of giving commands, these make things easier for the software by being not quite natural language, so instead of "Send a text to John saying X" it is "Text John message X". Certain functions are on keywords too, such as "launch X" to open another app, and you still have to touch the screen to confirm or cancel actions.
You can do all sorts of things via Vlingo - search Google, request directions, send a text, call someone, update Facebook or Twitter, and much more. There is also a text-to-speech option to read out incoming text'and email messages. This is a bit spooky because once enabled it simply starts speaking'after the message notification beep, though you can'shake the phone to stop it once it has started.
There are several other similar Android apps worth a try if Vlingo doesn't work for you, including Jeannie, Skyvi, Iris (Siri spelt backwards) and Eva/Evan.
Free to £25/month
Voicemail can be a right bind: you have to dial in to collect it, which is a bit of a nuisance even if you are not roaming abroad, and until you dial in you often have no idea whether the message is even worth retrieving.
This is where VoxSciences comes in with its VoxSci service, replacing your existing voicemail box with one that uses speech-to-text technology to transcribe messages. It then sends you an email containing both the transcript and the audio recording, and can optionally push both to the VoxSci app on your Android or iPhone, where you can read and listen to them at your leisure. It lets you search your voice messages too,'as well as giving the option to'call back or reply by text or email.
Your caller hears your greeting plus another announcing that "your message will be transcribed, please speak clearly". They also get a copy of the transcript sent by SMS, though you can turn this feature off via the VoxSciences website, where you can also access your messages.
Transcription took about three minutes using VoxScience's own text-to-speech engine, called VERBS, and was remarkably accurate.
The free app gives you access to the free version of VoxSci, which transcribes and sends the first 50 characters of each voice message. Alternatively, subscriptions run at up to '25 a month for unlimited full transcriptions, and VoxSciences also offers voicemail-to-text conversion systems for office phones and network operators.
Although it too converts voicemail to SMS and/or email, HulloMail works a little differently. As well as taking over your voicemail, it can optionally integrate with your email and online contacts, syncing voice messages into a specific folder in your mailbox.
You get alerts both on your phone and by email, and can access your voicemail either through the HulloMail app, by phoning in, or via email, which is pretty useful if you are roaming.
Other features include the ability to share messages to Facebook and record personal greetings for specific callers. For Android and iPhone users, both the paid app and HulloMail's ad-supported free version get access to its speech-to-text service, called Get the Gist. This uses Nuance technology, and will convert up to 50 voicemails a month, sending you the first 10 seconds of each in text form. Get the Gist costs '1.49 a month to subscribers or '1.99 to users of the free app; users of the paid app can also opt to receive the converted text by email.
Transcription is fully automated and was good on normal continuous speech. However, it occasionally bailed out on accented speech, instead sending a message that says: "This person left you a message that you need to listen to."
Like VoxSci, it automates the process of setting your mobile to forward missed or rejected calls to a UK non-geographic 033 number. These forwarded calls may be free or included in your monthly allowance, depending on your mobile operator.
And also like VoxSci, the app continued to work happily following a SIM change, making these services a useful option for anyone with multiple mobile numbers - in different countries, for example.
Converting speech-to-text is only the start - the next thing is to do something useful with that text, and this is exactly what SpeechTrans does. Not only can it transcribe your spoken message into text, it then translates it into one of dozens of languages, and for good measure it can be set to then speak the translation out loud. Yes, it is almost a Star Trek-style handheld translator.
As before, the conversion is done server-side in the cloud, so it does require an Internet connection. Its Nuance-powered speech-to-text conversion was good, although not 100 per cent, and while it couldn't handle the classics, translations of normal modern phrases mostly worked well. Occasionally a verb went astray, but the sense was still there - and the fact that it was being spoken out loud was great.
You can also cut and paste text into SpeechTrans to have it converted and spoken aloud, buy access in-app to a translating conference-call service or an offline translation facility, use a built-in translating Facebook Chat client, share translations to Facebook, Twitter or email, as well as use the app to translate text in a photo.
The BlackBerry and Windows 8 versions are unlimited, but the iPhone version is limited to 400 voice transcriptions and translations, though you can continue to use it to translate typed text once this allowance has run out.
The paid Android version includes only 200 transcriptions but also supports text message translation; there is also a free Android version which provides 30 transcriptions and includes ads. *