Open Sesame

I’m sitting at my laptop dictating this article into a microphone and watching it appear as text on my screen, simultaneously drawing on an interactive pen display. In truth, I’m still a novice user of these devices, but they both have a far more natural and intuitive feel than a keyboard or a mouse.

There is no doubt that today’s computers owe more to typewriters than to drafting tables. Personal computers were designed first and foremost as word processors or data entry machines and even drawing with a mouse is a lot like sketching with a brick. Drawing and designing in the days before computers involved a unique relationship between our hands, our eyes and our minds. All of these would be closely focused and coordinated in the singular space of a sheet of paper. It was a relationship that was all too blithely tossed aside in the move to adopt CAD systems, and the cruelest thing that computers did was separate our hands from our eyes and leave our minds wandering in limbo. New hardware and software suggest that this no longer needs to be the case. Finally, manufacturers are developing interfaces that reflect the way architects and designers like to work.

ViaVoice from IBM represents the latest generation of speech recognition programs that are reasonably accurate and relatively easy to use and install. Right now, for instance, I’m talking directly into ViaVoice’s SpeakPad, which is a simple text editor that is writing down what I say.

To begin using ViaVoice, I created my own personal voice model by using the package’s Audio Setup Assistant. By my reading several paragraphs provided by the Assistant, the software learns how I pronounce words. In order to further improve its accuracy the software also analyzes my documents and adds new words to its vocabulary. To improve my dictation accuracy I can correct words that ViaVoice has misinterpreted in its Correction Window, where I use my voice to select the right word from a list of alternatives.

In addition to the dictation functions, ViaVoice also allows you to control its software with voice commands. If I say “save this,” it will save the file automatically and it also has the capability of controlling other software packages. For example, I can say “open Internet Explorer” and I am duly connected to the Web. And I can use ViaVoice to do simple formatting tasks such as putting words and phrases in italics or boldface.

But first encounters with the future are often awkward. Even after training, ViaVoice still produces such interesting snippets as “Ahoy new line” and “pilaf fun.” You have to take your time and speak clearly. And, while you can use ViaVoice to dictate into popular word processing packages such as Microsoft Word, it tends to be slower and you can only make corrections using the keyboard.

You also need to make a conceptual leap in using any new input device. When I first began writing professionally, I would write out my articles by hand and then type them into a computer until one day an immoveable deadline forced me to write directly on the machine and I’ve done it that way ever since. Similarly, my first attempt to use ViaVoice to write an article has resulted in a large number of false starts, fragments of sentences and a lot of edits that have nothing to do with the accuracy of the software. Using a new device is very different from understanding a new way of working.

Nonetheless, if you hate typing, voice dictation may be a worthwhile investment. ViaVoice sells for an economical $280 CDN. You might also want to check out other similar programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking (see www.scansoft.com/ naturallyspeaking) which for a slightly higher price tag of $310 CDN offers greater functionality including full integration with Microsoft Office, WordPerfect and LotusNotes.

Architects who really hate typing and love sketching should check out the new interactive pen displays from Wacom Inc. That company sells the Cintiq product line, which combines the functionality of a pressure sensitive drawing tablet with a full colour LCD monitor. These devices allow you to draw directly on the screen using a cordless, battery-free pressure sensitive pen.

Even though the Cintiq displays do emulate an architect’s traditional approach to drawing, like ViaVoice they do have their own unique style of use that represents both a new and an old way of doing business. I have never seen anything that more closely approximates the way architects used to design. They do refocus our hands and eyes on the same space, but still have a different feel from putting pen to paper. An LCD isn’t vellum and a plastic stylus isn’t an ink nib.

Wacom offers two models of the Cintiq–the 18sx with an 18-inch diagonal screen and a resolution of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels and the 15x, which I have been testing, with a 15-inch diagonal screen and a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. Unfortunately, these devices are expensive; the 15x costs about $2,970 CDN while the 18sx lists for $5,470 CDN.

Are they worth it? That depends on how and with what software you intend to use them. Although these tablets work with most CAD packages on the market, they are particularly effective when their pressure sensitivity capabilities can be exploited (as they are with packages such as Adobe PhotoShop). By pressing harder on the tablet you can vary the spray of the airbrush tool or the thickness of a pencil line. For graphic designers, pressure sensitivity is essential and Wacom has built their business around their Intuos2 tablet, which is simply an input device without the combined display. Unfortunately such a feature is wasted on current CAD packages since they don’t respond to pressure.

New software offerings from Autodesk (see www.autodesk.com) and @Last Software (see www.sketch3d.com) do, however, take advantage of this attribute to provide a fully integrated hardware and software environment for design by sketching. Both allow you to sketch out rough three-dimensional objects, push and pull them into the desired final shape and render them with 3D paint brushes. Naturally, both work best with a pressure sensitive tablet.

Such a sketch-based approach is a departure from the parametric and database-driven approaches of packages such as Revit and ArchiCAD and to a certain extent represents a return to the idea of computers as electronic pencils. It will be worth watching to see how these new products fare in the architectural marketplace.

One trend that both ViaVoice and the Cintiq products share is their ease of use. I was pleasantly surprised that both had legible manuals and understandable installation instructions. This in itself is a remarkable step forward. Nonetheless they could both benefit from some further refinements to their designs. The ViaVoice microphone looks and feels like the headsets you get on long airplane flights and the 15x is heavy and awkward to connect. In fact, having enough ports to connect these devices is a cause for concern. ViaVoice took over my laptop’s microphone jack and one of its USB ports while the Cintiq grabbed the video output and my second USB port. With these devices and an Internet connection there isn’t much room for anything else and when using them you have a sense of being literally tied to your computer with a net of cables. Even so I was able to get both devices working simultaneously without once crashing my system.

It is this convergence of devices which may define the next generation of computing. Already companies such as Fujitsu (see www. fpc.fujitsu.com/www/products-pentablets.shtml) are offering portable tablet computers such as the Stylistic 3500 for around $3,700 CDN. This new generation of computers package the display, the tablet and the computer into a single device 11 inches wide, 8.5 inches deep, just over an inch high and weighing 3.2 lbs. that can be slipped into a briefcase and taken anywhere.

Douglas MacLeod is
a contributing editor to Canadian Architect and director of projects for NetEra Alliance for advanced computing and networking in Alberta.

System Requirements

ViaVoice

For more information on ViaVoice see www-3.ibm.com/software/speech

Operating Systems:

Windows 98 or Windows Me

Minimum System Requirements:

Intel Pentium 266 MHx processor and 256K L2 cache

64 MB RAM

460 MB available hard drive space

Windows 98/Me compatible 16-bit sound card with microphone jack

Quad speed CD-ROM drive or faster

Cintiq 15x

For more information on Wacom tablets see www.wacom.com

Macintosh:

OS 8.6 or higher

VGA or DVI graphics connector

USB port

CD-ROM Drive

PC:

Windows 95, 98, Me, NT 4.0, 2000 or XP

VGA or DVI graphics connector

USB or serial port

CD-ROM Drive

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