Tips for Mac OS X Speech Recognition

January 1, 2006

Mac OS X Speech Recognition
One of the first things I discovered when I switched to Mac was the ability to control the computer with your voice. I am usually a keyboard shortcut guy, but lately I’ve started to use Speech to control my Mac. If you have never tried Speech before, you should give it a try. In the System Preferences, there is a preference panel named “Speech”. To enable it just select “On” for Speakable Items. A new little widget-looking window will pop-up. Now to start using speakable items, you can just hold down the Escape key and give a command. To get the list of commands just click on the arrow on the bottom of the speech window and select “Open Speech Commands Window”, or you can just hold down the Escape key and say “Open Speech Commands Window”. You can change the default speech recognition key from Escape to your choice by selecting “Change Key” in the “Settings” panel. And if you don’t want to hold down a key at all, select “Listen Continuously with keyword”. Now, just type in a Keyword, ex. Computer, and select when and if you need to say the keyword.

Some people find it difficult to use speech recognition, because they are either in the wrong environment or they need to correct settings. Speech recognition can only work when in a quiet environment. If you are playing a song in iTunes, or a DVD in DVD Player, you will find it very hard to get speech recognition to respond to your voice. Make sure you are close to your Mac, and you are speaking loud enough. To check if you are loud enough, when speaking look at the look at the blue, green, and red bars. These bars react to the loudness of your voice, so try to speak so it stays at the green level. If you are still having trouble with speech recognition, just select “Calibrate” to change the volume of the microphone. You can test when calibrating by speaking some of the phrases on the left, and if the phrase blinks, the computer understood the command.

If you go to the “Commands” panel, you can choose what commands you want to use for speech recognition. I would select all of the options, but the Menu Bar is least necessary. With the “Front Window” option selected, you can control the buttons in the frontmost window, ex. “Cancel” or “Save”. You can create your own commands by saying “Define a Keyboard Command”. Then, you will be given a dialog box where you can type in the keyboard combo of the command, such as command-P. Then, type in what you want to say for that keyboard combo, maybe “Print”. Then, you can choose if you want the command in all applications, or just the frontmost app.

If the speech recognition window is a bit too annoying, just double click on it, and it should go right into the dock. If you have ever played Mac OS X Chess, you can use the speech recognition to move the pieces and control the game. And if you would like to control Exposé with speech recognition, Macworld has a great article for you.

Speech recognition is a pretty cool feature for Mac OS X, but maybe Leopard will build on these features, maybe include a speech-to-text feature.

22 Responses

  1. GW says:

    Speakable Items has been essentially the same for many versions of Mac OS. While it’s ability to recognize things may have improved a little, and there have been a few additions to the capabilities, it still remains a bit on the weak side, IMHO. What I continue to hope for is a command system that will respond based on a format, rather than a set command.

    For example, the system maintains a list of applications on the system, and if I said “Open _______” naming any application it should open it. Further it could offer customization where I could apply ‘nicknames’ to applications, such as simply saying “Photoshop” instead of “Adobe Photoshop CS”. Also, providing more responses to any failed understanding. I think that the 511 system in the SF Bay area is a great example of a much more seamless voice system. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that…”

    Anyway, I do look forward to having a better voice controlled system, but speakable items isn’t there yet…

    January 1st, 2006 at 4:08 pm

  2. WPH says:

    That is already implemented “Open iTunes” opens iTunes, I don’t know if it works for non-apple apps though

    January 1st, 2006 at 5:12 pm

  3. Blufire says:

    I do believe you can use “nicknames” by simply putting an alias of the program in the speakable items folder, and then naming it whatever you like (such as “Photoshop” in your example).

    January 1st, 2006 at 5:43 pm

  4. Geek talking » Making the most of Mac’s Speech recognition says:

    […] Another great tip here. […]

    January 1st, 2006 at 7:25 pm

  5. GW says:

    This is precisely my point. You can have any number of commands, including opening any application, but only if you set up a shortcut or script in speakable items folder. What I want is a smarter voice control system. I’d like to be able to say “Open story folder”, and have the computer say “I don’t have any applications with that name, however there is a folder with a name similar to that. Would you like me to open that?” Or, better yet, if there’s only one folder with that name, it should just open it. If it can’t find anything that matches that name, I’d like it to say “I don’t seem to be able to find anything with that name.”

    While it’s true that I could put a shortcut to a folder called ‘story folder’ in the speakable items folder and name it “open story folder”, but if I have to do that for every folder and application that I want to be able to use, then this is hardly a user friendly system.

    Yes, “Open ______” works for all Apple applications, but it should work for ALL applications. And applications that have longer names or names that are unpronounceable due to the publishers unfortunate choice to omit spaces (try “GQMacX” as an example) should be able to be assigned shortcuts in a simple and intuitive fashion.

    Right now the implementation and methodology behind speakable items is going on ten years old. While some of the underpinnings have clearly been improved, it’s time to improve the interface as well. So, I stand by what I said before, Speakable Items isn’t there yet.

    January 1st, 2006 at 8:43 pm

  6. Andreas says:

    Another limitation of ‘speakable items’ is that it’s US-Enlish only. Its functionality has never been extended to other languages and not even to other ‘Englishes’. The hit rate for people talking the ‘wrong’ dialect variant or for individuals with a slight accent is too small to make it useable.

    In its current form it’s not much more than a gimmick.

    January 1st, 2006 at 9:56 pm

  7. elmimmo says:

    Just a note: only worthy for English speaking users. Speech recognition never has been available for other languages… (and we are in the 5th iteration of Mac OS X so far).

    January 2nd, 2006 at 11:04 am

  8. otherguy says:

    The reason that Apple’s speech recognition technology is so accurate is that it uses context to limit scope. It only has to distinguish between things that it’s specifically looking for. If all applications were speakable at all times, it would continually be confusing things like iCal and iChat. Voice recognitions systems for phone menus use the same trick of context.

    Even professional Speech to Text applications like Dragon Naturally Speaking use the context of your normal writing style to help guess about words that sound very similar.

    Now I’m not saying that context-free speaker-independent voice recognitions shouldn’t be sought, I’m just saying that Apple has managed to develop very accurate speaker-independent voice recognition that also happens to be neat and moderately useful. As the scope of what speech recognition handles goes up, so does time spent by the speaker training it.

    I was thinking about this just the other day, and I was thinking about how Spotlight gives Apple a very cool way to produce a very functional speech recognition system while also effectively limiting scope. “Computer, send a confirmation letter to Marie about our meeting on Thursday,” could be done because the number of names is limited with Address book, and further limited by iCal appointments on Thursday.

    Anyway – that’s the trade off: Scope for accuracy. Either the programmer has to determine how to effectively limit scope so that they computer can pick between words that sound the same, or the speaker has to spend the time training and/or correcting the computer.

    January 2nd, 2006 at 11:58 am

  9. otherguy says:

    elmimmo –
    Speech recognitions has been out since the Quadra’s. I don’t think that it’s so much of a “Apple not caring about world markets” as it is an “Apple not really working on it at all.”

    January 2nd, 2006 at 11:59 am

  10. GW says:


    Yes. I recognize the strength of what Speakable Items is, and how it pulls it off. My main point is that it is nothing new. I remember playing with it almost 10 years ago and seeing little difference. This article suggests that it is a novel thing. Whereas it’s my perception that it was a neat trick even five years ago, but now it’s an archaic neglected technology. As you said “Apple not really working on it at all.”

    January 2nd, 2006 at 1:21 pm

  11. David says:

    Apple has a small team of high-powered people working on speech recognition, and several other related things. The fact is that the demand for speech recognition is very low, so it doesn’t get a lot of concentrated attention compared to other things.

    January 2nd, 2006 at 10:11 pm

  12. bob says:

    wow u got shown up by people

    January 8th, 2006 at 10:37 pm

  13. Kuro Rai says:

    Yea but overall it is a good hting to have… but a feature they should add is a ‘speech-to-text’… i would find it A LOT better if it were possible to just say ‘computer open _______… computer type________________… etc’ allowing you to just say what you want to type… this would make life a lot easier for people that have to type and do multiply things at once… im sure that if Apple adds this there will be more companies wanting this….

    August 18th, 2006 at 2:58 pm

  14. Another David says:

    According to press reports over the years, Apple’s “small team of high-powered people working on speech recognition” combined with relatively small market share has managed to keep most of the major players out of the Mac market. Dragon and IBM have abandoned the Mac market leaving iListen (which continues to operate on a now elderly Phillips recognition engine).

    My Christmas wish: that Apple’s “small team of high powered people” produce a product.

    October 3rd, 2006 at 11:11 am

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    July 31st, 2007 at 7:52 am

  16. Andrew says:

    Why is it that when I tell Speech to “Chat with ___” it immediately sends the person “…”?

    August 20th, 2007 at 5:54 pm

  17. Sandra-xp says:

    August 24th, 2007 at 11:53 pm

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    August 30th, 2007 at 9:39 am

  19. susieq says:

    Being a die hard Mac user, I find it disconcerting that there are no Apple compatible voice-to-text products available that work with Leopard. When it’s time for my husband (who is now crippled with Multiple Sclerosis) to dictate a letter, he will have to open our dreaded Toshiba. Egad!
    I think Apple needs to reconsider people with disabilities and the elderly. They say it’s a “small” market? What are they thinking? Baby Boomers are getting older by the minute. As arthritis sets in, we’re going to want VTT in a big way. Get on it Apple!!!

    December 18th, 2007 at 12:16 am

  20. Shlomit says:

    hi all,
    I reckon that speech recognition mainly aimed for disable people.
    well, I just bought to my mother, who has MS a new iMac.
    I told here how easy it will be using SR, but as said here, her Dutch accent is really hard for it to understand.
    If a company is doing something for disable people, they better do it good or not at all. Having one finger at one hand that can work properly, is a bit hard to work with.
    By the way, on iMac, they put the power button at the back. Not only she can’t reach it, her disability unable her to feel the button… so she can’t use it.
    The remote, is so small, she can’t distinguish if she press the middle button or one of the other buttons as she can’t place her finger in the right spot….
    well, here it is.
    Universal Access. such a fake.

    April 25th, 2008 at 1:33 pm

  21. Phil Osborn says:

    I have spent so much time trying to pronounce words for a response that never comes & also searching for and reading pages like this one, “”
    , that I too don’t have much regard for ‘Apple Experts’!!! As an Ausie my English is ok but to illustrate, in the “calibrate” dialogue, even the sentence ” Make this page speaklable” is 1 in 10 to have recognition, and “Show me what to say” is 1 in I give up”!!! I did achieve it 1 or two times but with no immediate repeat success. My English friends and Anglo Indian Wife too don’t succeed. Show as in cow or show as in oh? The truth is, if calibrate the volume is just beginning of the problem, then goodness knows how I’ll ever get the practical use that I now need, to work on my Mac. I’ve been a user for nearly 15 years now. And now I need this feature. Tried it years ago out of interest with no success then. All the tutorials seem ok , but ‘EXPERTS’ please listen, IT DOES NOT WORK’. YOUR EXPLANASIONS DON’T ‘ADD UP’! I’m wondering if could it indeed be challenged in a court of law in the US and other places as FALSE & DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING to people with disabilities. Will you be obligated to refund any of them if they felt DUPED?

    October 15th, 2009 at 6:42 am

  22. Jeff says:

    Umm…. you can actually give any app you set to speakable a nickname. Just go to the speech command options and click the app and you can type what you want to say to open that individual app.

    June 22nd, 2010 at 5:48 pm

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