Network: Fine, if you like talking to yourself

Jeremy Vine tries out the Voice Organizer, a handy gadget for those not easily embarrassed
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"If you can talk, you can stay organised!'' So proclaims the packaging of the Voice Organizer, an American-designed, hand-held voice recognition diary and telephone book. Too good to be true?

Well, that might depend on how easily embarrassed you are by talking - with a noticeable pause between each word - into the palm of your hand in the middle of the office, street, train or restaurant. If people who use mobile phones in public places driveyou mad, then this technology is guaranteed to make you feel a strong affinity for Luddites.

That would, however, be a pity. In what it tries to do, the Voice Organizer is an imaginative attempt to discard the most annoying and time-consuming aspects of other electronic organisers: keyboards designed for midgets and handwriting recognition products that have a tough time competing with a five-year-old when it comes to word recognition.

The Voice Organizer scores highly for its innovative and small size, fitting easily into a trouser or jacket pocket. Designed for single-handed operation, it nestles in the palm of a hand, with its 12 control buttons within easy reach of a couple of fingers (usually the thumb or forefinger).

In essence, this is a tapeless recorder (voice recordings are stored in 512k of memory) with a few hi-tech additions. Recorded voice notes can be saved as they are, or with the addition of a future time to remind the user of an event or action. On playback, the message is played through the built-in speaker, with a narrow but readable two-line LCD sc r een showing the date and time. The phone directory is perhaps the most readily accessible. Entries are recalled by simply speaking a name; the screen instantly displays the phone number.

Before being able to use the machine, it has to be trained to recognise its owner's voice. It's a quick procedure that involves speaking up to 31 words, each of them twice. The words consist of the numbers zero to twelve; the days of the week; no; hour( s ); minutes; timer; fifteen; thirty; forty-five; AM; PM; and the word "recurring''. This last word is used to repeat events, such as daily alarms, weekly meetings or monthly reminders to pay bills.

The choice of words recognised is disappointing and highlights one of the drawbacks of the product. To set a memo for, say, the 25th of December, it would be most natural to say "Twenty-fifth December'' or "Twenty-five December''. Instead, the user is forced to say "Two ... Five ... One ... Two''. Entering calendar information in this way, with single digits, is completely unnatural and defeats the object of voice recognition.

Of course, it's easy to be critical. This is doubtless the first of many such products, whose limited vocabulary has been chosen to fit a modest memory capacity. Recording phone numbers is somewhat easier; I found a near 100 per cent accuracy rate in recognising spoken numerals and names.

Voice recognition has long been hailed as the technology to replace the keyboard. It sounds fine, if you'll forgive the pun. For all its limitations and the thought processes it imposes, the Voice Organizer does its job well enough. But there is still the question of the noise pollution it generates and its ability to work in noisy situations. In the street, in a car or train, the Voice Organizer has problems comprehending speech because of noisy backgrounds. The manual even mentions "office equipment and other people'' as potential distractions for the machine. This is technology for hermits.

Despite having used the machine for a few weeks, I doubt that any of my colleagues know of its existence. The truth is that I feel uncomfortably self-conscious in speaking diary reminders for all to hear. And it's not because I'm embarrassed by being seen as a techno-freak: anyone who knows me would be surprised to see me use anything so mundane as pen and paper.

The Voice Organizer is fine for executives with their own private offices; perhaps it is even intended for them. It is let down, however, by a limited vocabulary; the problems of voice recognition in everyday situations; a diary that extends only a year ahead; and a phone directory that limits the number of entries to 100 names (20 names, with four associated numbers, in each of five alphabetical sections: A-C; D-G; H-M; N-R; S-Z).

Setting aside these faults, the Voice Organizer is an impressive debut for this technology at the low end of the market. It is certainly more impressive than the first generation of handwriting recognition products were, and succeeds in its limited functions most of the time.

For sheer pose value, this product scores a 10. Depending on your point of view, it also scores equally high on the I'm-A-Techno-Wally scale.

The Voice Organizer 512K is distributed in the UK by Johnsons Photopia at £149.99. An additional memory card to double memory will be available soon for about £40. For stockists, telephone (0782) 717100.