Curtis Chong(19922 bytes)

Curtis Chong

The Voice Mate: An Aural Organizer that Really Works

by Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Curtis Chong directs the NFB's Technology Department at the National Center for the Blind. This is what he has to say about a new pocket organizer that the NFB is now selling.

A couple of years ago the Parrot Company in Paris, France, released the Parrot Plus voice recognition organizer. Although the Parrot Plus was not originally designed for use by the blind, it proved to have a unique appeal, which resulted in newer versions containing improvements suggested by a growing number of blind users.

Perhaps the most significant problem with the Parrot Plus was its small storage capacity. In its normal recording mode the Parrot Plus held up to six-and-a-half minutes of recorded information; in its compressed mode (the results of which are extremely difficult to understand), it held up to thirteen minutes of recorded information. For any active user this was simply not enough.

The Voice Mate, announced by the Parrot Company in November, 1999, is the next generation of the Parrot Plus. Physically it very much resembles the Parrot Plus in that it is about the size of a television remote control. It fits comfortably into a suit pocket, and you can get a leather carrying case for it. It is powered by four standard AAA batteries which, according to previous experience with the Parrot Plus, should last for a few months. Two major improvements over the Parrot Plus are forty minutes of recording time and non-volatile flash memory, which allows the batteries to be replaced without losing data. Earphones are supplied for private listening.

The Voice Mate has five major utilities: a talking phone book, a voice note pad, an appointment book, a talking alarm clock, and a talking calculator. Every one of these utilities is completely accessible nonvisually--in other words, the Voice Mate talks to you right out of the box.

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The Talking Phone Book

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This utility is used to store information about people with whom you communicate. In its basic form the talking phone book stores a person's name (as spoken by you) and telephone number, which you enter through the Voice Mate keypad. You can locate individual entries in the phone book by either speaking the name of the person you are looking for or moving quickly through the entries with arrow keys supplied for the purpose. Once you have found the desired name, you can instruct the Voice Mate to generate the tones that allow the number to be dialed using a touch-tone telephone. Alternatively, the Voice Mate will speak the digits of the person's phone number. If you like, you can save up to five phone numbers for any given person and also aurally record the address.

We found that the voice-recognition technology in the talking phone book worked quite well. We experienced a success rate very close to 100% when trying to locate entries using voice identifiers. Moreover, we were pleased to note that, once a given entry had been recorded, it was possible to add or modify any part of the information.

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The Voice Note Pad

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With this utility you can record aural messages in the Voice Mate. Each message is numbered and stored with the time and date it was recorded. When replaying messages, you can choose whether or not to hear this information. The Voice Mate provides a rich set of editing functions for individual messages; you can insert more information, remove some information, or overlay the remainder of the message with new information.

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The Appointment Book

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This utility lets you record a message about an event which you know will take place at a specific date and time. The Voice Mate can then be instructed to trigger a notification beep at the date and time of the event. If the event is likely to occur more than once--as in a birthday or weekly meeting--the Voice Mate can be set to trigger a reminder beep. For example, you can instruct the Voice Mate to trigger a notification beep at 10:00 a.m. on July 5 of the year 2000 to tell you that the first general session of the convention of the National Federation of the Blind is about to start. You can instruct the Voice Mate to trigger an alarm at 7:30 a.m. every day to remind you that you'd better be in your office. Or you can set up a reminder that will go off on April 1 of every year to tell you that "Today is April Fool's Day." Whether a notification beep or a reminder, the Voice Mate will trigger the alarm even if you have turned it completely off.

Another handy feature is the ability to associate aural key words with an event. You can enter a birthday, for example, and record a key word like "Mom's birthday." Then to locate Mom's birthday, you press a key and say "Mom's birthday." The Voice Mate finds the appropriate entry in the appointment book.

Last but not least, there is the ability to look at your appointment schedule for a specific date. This is handy if you want to avoid double-booking meetings.

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The Talking Alarm Clock

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The Voice Mate's talking alarm clock is fairly straightforward. This is where you set the current date and time. The alarm has its own independent volume control. You can set the clock to run using standard a.m.-p.m. notification or a twenty-four-hour mode (military time). The date can be entered in either European or American format.

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The Talking Calculator

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This is a calculator which can perform the four basic arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Up to twelve digits can be displayed. In addition to the four basic functions, the Voice Mate also has a percent feature, the ability to store and retrieve a single number from memory, and a European currency conversion function. You can set the calculator to display from 2 to 8 decimal places. When the display is read, numbers are pronounced in full words (e.g., 123 would be pronounced "one hundred and twenty-three").

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Documentation

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The Voice Mate comes with a printed manual and a tutorial on audiocassette. The tutorial is enough to get you started, but its description of some of the calculator functions leaves a lot to the user's imagination. If you are familiar with the operation of the Parrot Plus, be advised that the Voice Mate is sufficiently different that you will feel the need to listen to the taped tutorial at least once. Large print and Braille manuals are said to be available, but we have not had an opportunity to examine them.

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Areas for Improvement

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In some of the utilities (e.g., the talking alarm clock and the phone book), there is no way to correct an error you have entered on the keypad. It is necessary to enter the data incorrectly first and then take steps to correct the information. It would be nice to have a "clear current entry" or a "backspace" function which works the same way for all of the utilities.

It is cumbersome to use the Voice Mate as a talking clock. You have to enter multiple commands to learn what time it is. Also, when you ask the Voice Mate to speak the time, you hear the current date and, if it is on, the time of the alarm. It would be nice to have a simple-to-activate function which would speak only the time.

The setting in the talking calculator which controls how many decimal positions are displayed is referred to as "digits after comma." This is confusing to someone who hasn't listened to the tutorial tape or read the manual. This should be corrected to say "digits after decimal point."

Finally, in the voice note pad, while you can insert new information into a message that you have already recorded, you cannot pause the recording of a message that you are composing for the first time. There should be a pause function in the recording mode similar to the pause function available when playing back messages in the note pad.

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Conclusion

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The Voice Mate is truly an aural organizer that a blind person can use. Its compact design, long battery life, and diverse functionality make it extremely useful for the person on the go who needs to do a lot of things out of the office, while at the same time keeping track of the many meetings and events which are an inevitable part of one's working life.

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Availability

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The Voice Mate is now available through the Materials Center of the National Federation of the Blind. It is priced at $300. Telephone (410) 659-9314. Calls to the Materials Center are accepted from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., eastern time.

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