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Nashville Scene Speaking Freely

"Star Trek" becomes reality

By James Hanback Jr.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:  Imagine you're standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, ready to take orders from your captain. (Kirk or Picard--who cares? It's a television show.) At this particular moment, the ship is faced with decoding a strange encrypted message that was traveling through subspace. Suddenly remembering your 19th- and 20th-century history, you immediately recognize the code and realize that you only need a key reference to decipher it.

"Computer," you say. "Display Morse Code key." And so you decipher the message and save humanity, or something like that. And you did it without ever having to touch a computer keyboard.

Voice commands have been the dream of computer scientists since the Altair, regarded as the first "personal" computer. (Developed in the 1970s, it was named by the inventor's daughter, who was watching--what else?--Star Trek at the time.) Now a Nashville man says he's bringing the world one step closer to a keyboardless society.

"The easiest way to explain it is to say I've invented the Star Trek computer," says Lunis Orcutt, owner of KnowBrainer Voice Commands. "I've been working on it for nearly two years. On this computer, you should be able to say any command and never touch the keyboard or mouse."

Orcutt's computer is actually an Intel-based machine running Windows '95 and DragonDictate, the latter an award-winning voice-recognition program developed by Dragon Systems. Dragon's software analyzes the vocal input and transforms it into words and phrases. Orcutt further expands on the command input, creating literally thousands of voice-activated commands that do everything from opening a file to shutting down the computer.

The seeds of the project were planted when Orcutt moved to Nashville a decade ago to break into the music business. "At that time, I found myself alone in a recording studio a lot, with nobody on the other side of the glass to press the buttons," he explains. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could just say a word and start or stop recording?' "

Despite the difficulties of developing just such a program, software makers have found a way through the use of voice-activated macros. A "macro" is a small computer program designed to automate repetitive tasks. They're mainly used in word processor and spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Corel WordPerfect. Users are allowed to create their own menu items and keyboard shortcuts to accomplish tasks that would ordinarily take dozens of keystrokes.

For instance, Orcutt says he uses the Dragon software and his thousands of command macros to do everyday tasks like dictating e-mail on his notebook computer while driving. The voice commands free his hands to do other things--like control the steering wheel.

When voice commands become widespread, they could eliminate repetitive-stress injuries that result from typing. Orcutt says the program could also be a good way to introduce blind people, or those missing hands or limbs, to the world of computing.

"Bring up Word," he tells the machine, which then searches for and launches the Microsoft Word application. In contact management programs like Microsoft Outlook, Orcutt has programmed commands that will automatically search for and dial telephone numbers, notifying the user by voice when to pick up the receiver.

Anyone who knows how to program macros could do what Orcutt has done, but so far, he says, he's the only one doing it on a large scale. "There's one other person that's coding voice commands, but he hasn't done quite as much as I have yet."

In fact, Orcutt already has some big-name international businesses interested in his product combined with DragonDictate. But don't expect your keyboard or mouse to be disappearing anytime soon. At nearly $800, the software is a little too expensive for the average consumer right now. "The costs will come down eventually," Orcutt says. "I think in three years or so we're going to be seeing fewer keyboards."

The software still has its quirks, as any software does. During a demonstration, the computer's microphone at one point refused to "wake-up" for input. (You can put it in "sleep" mode so that you can talk without activating commands.) Orcutt was forced to press a button to wake up the device.

"Bad computer," he said, once the microphone was working.

"Sorry," it replied.

The 1970s Altair, a small box with 256 bytes of memory and a series of switches on its front panel, was programmed by endlessly flipping switches on and off. It was the computer that inspired Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen to design the first BASIC programming language for personal computers.

Modern computers have come a long way since then. Now they use keyboards, mice, and trackpads for input. But by the time Microsoft's Windows NT 5.0 and Office 2000 software come out commercially, Orcutt says humanity will be well on its way to speaking commands rather than typing them.


"Home" pages

The Middle Tennessee Regional Multiple Listings Service (MTRMLS) has debuted the public version of its Web site, which offers real-estate listings. The Middle Tennessee Property Finder ( http://www.realtracs.net or http://www.realtracs.com) was launched in August, in an attempt to make Realtor resources available to consumers as well.

"What's unique about this new public Web site is that buyers, sellers, and Realtors are assured that they are seeing the most current data available because it is coming directly from the MLS database," said MTRMLS spokesman Mike McClanahan in a statement to media. "Other Internet-based home searches usually contain data that is a week to 10 days old.... MTRMLS officials have designed the site so that buyers and sellers are directed to the Realtor for all of their real-estate transaction needs.

"Realtors have always played a vital role in marketing, managing, and closing real-estate transactions," he added. "Yet buyers desire to become more involved in the home selection process. Middle Tennessee Property Finder makes current, accurate real-estate listing information accessible to the buying public."

Teach me

The Internet is gaining viability as a learning environment, at least as far as Vanderbilt University electrical and computer engineering professor John Bourne is concerned. He's teaching one of the first known university classes on developing and teaching an online class. The course, known as an Asynchronous Learning Network, was created by Bourne and Martine Dawant, research instructor of electrical and computer engineering at Vanderbilt.

ALNs are networks of people, hooked via computers and the Internet, who communicate with teachers and other students, but may not be online at the same time. According to a statement from Vanderbilt, ALNs are "typically implemented using World Wide Web sites and employ computer conferencing as a collaboration and communication vehicle."

"The ability to offer courses to folks who are far away and who couldn't otherwise get this education, is, I think, a big deal," Bourne says. His program began in August 1997. The first session wrapped up in September of the same year. He had more than 230 students worldwide. His students learn computer conferencing, Web site design, and other tools to implement their own online courses. Bourne answers students' questions no more than 24 hours after they are posted on Vanderbilt's ALN Web site ( http://www.aln.org ).

"One of the great features of computer conferencing is that you answer a question posted by one of the students online so that all the students can see the answer," Bourne says.

Cyber socials

While the Internet's fastest-growing new-user base tends to be people over 50 (especially women over 50), new fears have arisen that the Net may result in depression among people who use it as a substitute for genuine human contact. A study conducted by a group of social psychologists discovered that, while people are participating in Internet social activities like chat rooms and newsgroups, limited conversation with strangers does not compare to the stimulating conversation and human contact that live friendship offers.

Specifically, too much of anything is not a good thing. The more time people spend online, the less time they spend interacting with people in their daily lives. Sometimes it pays to shut off the computer and go outside.

Scum of the Net

Approximately 100 people have been arrested as part of an Internet child-pornography ring. The raid is reputed to be the largest assault on Internet child pornography ever. In a Sept. 2 predawn raid, police and Interpol officials recovered more than 100,000 indecent images of children from just one U.S. child-pornography club, according to Internet reports. Some of the children looked to be no more than 2 years old.

The raids were spread throughout several European countries as well.

In this country, raids took place across 22 states. According to reports, an investigation into an American group known as Wonderland, as well as several others, has been under way since spring of 1996. Four arrests were made in the U.S.: in Maine, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey. Officials said more arrests are likely.

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