ShortTalk: Dictation Made Rewarding


Ten years of mostly frustrated, frivolous, and fruitless experimentation with alternative input technology led to the design of ShortTalk and other of my input technologies. I am extraordinary grateful to my employers, the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and AT&T Labs for having supported my special needs throughout the ten years I have spent recovering from a typing injury. Indeed, these needs went well above the conventional trials of mounds of “ergonomic” input devices, but included secretarial typing assistance, expensive early dictation software, and most of all time to write the software that ultimately fulfilled the extraordinary potential of speech recognition technology.

In particular, I am grateful to Julia Hirshberg and my boss Michael Merritt for strongly supporting the development of an improved user interface for dictation systems around 1996, not long after I joined AT&T. Erik Ostrom expertly programmed most of this first interface, in Emacs Lisp, which I used for over three years. This was the first version of EmacsListen. Around the same time, Thomas Rene Nielsen published his demacs macros for Emacs, which helped promote some of the ideas that emerged in discussions we had at Aarhus.

In 2000, I attended the VoiceCode design meeting arranged by Alain Desilet, and Jonathan Epstein, and Eric S. Johansson. This event was most inspiring, because it clearly demonstrated the enormous gulf between the capabilities of commercial dictation systems and the needs of professional users. Around the same time Barry Jaspan published his VR-mode, which enables NaturallySpeaking, the continuous dictation system, to communicate with Emacs. (Barry has generously allowed VR-mode to be disseminated under a BSD-type license, which has enabled it to be included in the EmacsListen distribution.)

Thus energized, and further spurred on by David Jeschke, I embarked on a minor rewrite of Erik's code that would enable me to use EmacsListen with continuous dictation thanks to the Barry's excellent code.

As I started writing the new code, I got sucked into a vortex of feature creep and perfection that led to substantial revisions of the ontology, functionality, phonology, and grammar of the editing language that I now call ShortTalk. Over the next couple of years, I plan on gradually admitting to my boss how distracting this work was.

Update: September 2004. I owe thanks to Joe Sommer, Mehryar Mohri, and Alex Rudnicky for their patient efforts in enabling the software to find a home. Also I should thank the many people who have written to me and encouraged the software to be released.