Talking To Your Mac: Mountain Lion And The Future Of Computers

Mountain Lion, the next big software cat for your Mac, has a gazillion new features. Too many to name and too many to care about. But there's one you should pay attention to, because it might change all of computing.

Dictation is one of the most straightforward new parts of Mac OS X Mountain Lion -- it's so simple that it's easy to overlook. All you do is double-tap a button, start talking wherever you'd type, and your computer fills in the words you speak. It's a stellar replacement for the bulk of casual typing that fills up our conscious hours. And it's fast! -- you truly feel like you've got an attentive secretary stuck somewhere in that tiny aluminium chassis. Apple says Dictation will even adapt to your voice over time, making it more accurate and attuned the more you plough through it. Neat.

It's not Siri -- it's built on the same voice-recognition technology, but it won't answer questions for you. Just as well, since Siri doesn't really work beyond affirming Zooey Deschanel's belief in rain. But it could still be just as big as any digitised voice that spits back factoids and Starbucks directions. This could be Apple's first great stab at killing the keyboard for good.

All of the signs are here. Mountain Lion folds in iOS features to the desktop mix, interlocking a notification centre, sharing buttons, as well as mimicking what we've been doing on our phones and iPads with iCloud. Don't forget that these are devices that lack keyboards. Instead, we have to use our fingers on a virtual keyboard, which works pretty well on a phone, but just OK on an iPad. It's the reason nobody is ever going to write anything substantive on a tablet. Your fingers on that glass just don't cut it. But you know what's worse than an average virtual keyboard? Plugging in an actual keyboard. A major slice of the tablet's gleaming appeal is its simplicity -- everything you need is crammed into that aluminium plane, without the need for peripherals.

But if iOS and pinching and touching and swiping and wiping are the future of computers, how do we type our way out of the keyboard necessity? We don't -- we talk our way out of it.

"Talking is the new typing," Apple declares in the list of Mountain Lion's new features. This is marketing, sure, but it's got chewy bits of truth in it too. If the tech we use with our mobile gadgets and the tech we love about our laptops and desktops will someday merge, Apple needs us to get used to talking to machines (and eventually TVs). Siri still makes us a little uncomfortable, and perhaps that's a function of her cluelessness. But for firing off tweets, filling in comments and updating Facebook? You can do all of this with a double tap of the Fn button to trigger Dictation and a third tap to conclude. Your Mac will process for a moment, and then drop the text -- you can even say "exclamation point" or "comma" to add those in, although that's still a little wonky. But even with wonkiness, there's something lovely about not having to touch the keyboard.

It's more than just sloth: a keyboard feels like overkill for the hyper-short, hyper-quick way we sling text around these days. And with so much of Apple's design emphasis placed on trackpad touch gestures already, your hands don't long for the letters as much as you think. All this could start to rewire our brains away from a dependency on a button setup from the 19th century, and towards an inexorable date with touch and talk destiny.

Dictation still requires you to talk a little like a 1990s cyborg, and it's nowhere near accurate enough for, say, writing an article or an essay. But it's young technology, and one that might soon become powerful to make terms like "CMD + Q" or "CTRL + ALT + DEL" feel as obsolete and distant as the things we hammered them out on. So when Mountain Lion finds its way onto your system in coming months, consider double-tapping that Fn button and muttering a little. Experiment -- because the day Dictation goes from a neat trick to a computing necessity could be closer than you think.



    I don't see how this is useful to anyone who can touch type? Typing is much faster than talking... Maybe it would be useful for multitasking? but I can't think of any practical situation; Can't eat and talk, can't play guitar and talk, unless it is smart enough to filter out the guitar noise? can't think of anything else I would want to do while writing...

    Might be useful with a Bluetooth headset or something , you know - just in case you want to write an essay while doing the dishes or something...

      To be fair, you can't eat and touch type or play guitar and touch type either.

        but you can sing Karaoke while typing =)

          you win.

        No but you also can't talk with a mouthful and the guitar would confuse the dictation

      erm, fastest typing at 170wpm as opposed to fastest speech at 500wpm... typing is by no means faster. Of course, by the time you correct misinterpretations etc, the speech gets slower. Still. Be interesting to see how it compares against things like Dragon Dictate etc...

        Fastest speech at 500wpm, yes, but fastest speech Dictation can pick up? I agree, it'll be interesting to see how it stacks up against the competition; I'm hopeful that Apple will gather enough data from everyone using this (including Siri) to develop fairly rapidly into something very useful.

    Hasn't this been around for years...I used to use an app called dragon talk or something in Windows 98 back in the 90's..

      I remember dragon talk, it was useful only if you wanted to covert your homework from English speech into written gibberish.

        Really? The article says this is basically the same thing:
        "Dictation still requires you to talk a little like a 1990s cyborg, and it’s nowhere near accurate enough for, say, writing an article or an essay. But it’s young technology..."

        No, that's oooooooold tech. It should've matured better than that by now.

          As the retail version of Mountain Lion hasnt yet been released its probably too soon to comment on how well it actually works. I assumed the author was referring to other voice dictation software he had used.

            Nope, he's talking about "Dictation", the new OSX voice recognition system.

            I really want to be able to talk to my machines, like in Star Trek. And I know that things like this represent yet another tiny step in that direction. HOWEVER saying "you truly feel like you’ve got an attentive secretary stuck somewhere in that tiny aluminium chassis" is in direct opposition to "you have to talk like a cyborg". I've tried a few different voice dictation and command systems and we have a ways to go with this stuff yet.

      Yeah, Dragon is positively ancient now. It never caught on because it didn't really work that well.

    Very well written Sam, I will definitely try this feature out - for those who can touch type (i.e. me) this could be a very useful feature.

    My father had a mic head set back in the 90s and used the entire Win95 OS via voice, and wrote many manuals that was as well.

    Not sure why this article claims Apple is doing something new and amazing.

    OS2 Warp was voice operated too.

    Welcome to 1995 Apple.

    Word of warning, no one wants to be seen talking to a piece of plastic and circuit boards. It won't catch on.

      "Word of warning, no one wants to be seen talking to a piece of plastic and circuit boards. It won’t catch on." That sounds like so many tech predictions of the past "640K ought to be enough for anybody." etc etc.

        Noone's been able to properly prove who said that (if at all):

        "In conclusion, the evidence is mixed. The first known citation occurred in 1985 despite the claim that the comment was made in 1981. Indeed, there does not appear to be any direct support for the 1981 date beyond the fact that the IBM PC was introduced in that year. It is not clear when or where Gates made the statement given in the 1985 cite. Perhaps James E. Fawcette knows more about the circumstances. The 1985 and 1990 remarks appeared in quotation marks, but they were not part of interviews."

    As a few have already noted, you've been able to talk to Windows forever but nobody does. This, however, is something different that could be really useful in certain situations, but it would probably require me to turn the music down and that ain't gonna happen.

    Hello computer:

    Anyone who multitasks is going to love this. All tech goes through many staged of refinement, think of the Apple Newton, years later we are now realising the value of smart phones. Voice recognition is in the early days for sure BUT for the millions of people who don't type at high speed and for who is is a kind of disconnect between thoughts and fingers (like me) the adea of just being able to talk while something types it up for editing has potential to allow a whole new opportunity in aurthoring!

    Being a touch typist I've never found dictation to be a compelling reason to bother with voice input. However, being able to issue commands without touching a mouse or even cutting out some keyboard shortcuts would be awesome. "Volume 20"; "mute Chrome"; even just being able to say "copy" and "paste", and have it work consistently would be great.

    I would hope that saying "End of line" will be the default way of closing programs

    Texting spelled the end of written language (pun intended).
    Will dictation dictate the end of talkin' proper?

    Can anyone advise how I add an avatar to my comments?

      I assume those with avatars sing in through facebook or some such thing. I don't think you can do it with a Gizmodo log-in.

    This has been a feature in Windows for a long time and further improved in Windows 7, not only can you do full dictation in word, you can also control the entire computer with just voice commands. I tried this years ago, but in the office you just end up looking like a douche talking to your computer and is counter productive for those around you.

    It's nice to see Apple getting this feature, but I am already cringing at all the tech blogs that will announce this as a new era of computing all thanks to the mighty Apple.

      Voice control has also been in OSX since 10.0... This is different.

    I type way-the-fuck quicker than I can talk. Besides who the hell wants to hear people talking all of the time? Computing can be a blessedly silent activity, depending on how clackity-clackity your keyboard is.

    I really hope you'll be able to open apps and navigate through the UI using something like this. I can't wait until one of the giant tech companies make huge advancements on this type of thing. I want my macbook to develop its own artificial intelligence!

    The Future: Voice Recognition in Computers for more information

    The revolution in computer world is going in step by step from large computers to personal computers, laptops and notebooks. The technology reached to touch screens and now the future of the computers is expected to have voice recognition for the computers. But the question here is that is voice recognition in computers really possible?... -

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