If you'd like an entirely new surfing experience, why not talk your way around the Web?
I've been doing it for a couple of weeks now with a nifty program called CoversaWeb, which lets you control your Web browser by talking to your PC.
It's an entirely different feeling, and distinctly relaxing. Instead of hunching over your screen and pawing at a mouse, you can lean back in your chair, sip a cup of coffee and literally tell your computer where to go.
And for those who don't have full use of their hands or suffer from repetitive stress injury, ConversaWeb is an incredibly useful tool.
The program runs under Windows 95 and requires that you have Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 installed on your computer. Naturally, you'll need a sound card and a microphone. Although any mike will do, you'll get the best results - and have the most enjoyable experience - with a headset model. They're available for $20 or so in computer stores.
To work its magic, ConversaWeb literally hijacks Internet Explorer's browser technology. As a result, when you start it up, something that looks like IE4 appears on the screen, but there's a row of strange icons at the top - each bearing the words for a spoken command.
For example, to go to your home page, just say "Go to home page," and the browser responds just as if you'd clicked on the home page button.
You can send your browser to any link on a page just by saying the underlined words on your screen. If a link says "The Baltimore Sun," that's what you say. ConversaWeb enlarges the words in the link, makes them blink for a second, and then loads the page.
If the link is attached to a graphic instead of text, there's no problem. ConversaWeb recognizes graphics-based links and assigns each one a number on your screen. To load Link No. 4, say "Number Four" to load the page.
The program is amazingly accurate and easy to use, a sign that there's some very sophisticated technology underneath. It's also a sign that speech recognition has come a long way.
ConversaWeb uses something called speaker-independent recognition, which means it understands virtually anyone's voice right out of the box.
By way of contrast, dictation products such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or IBM's Via Voice require that you train them, typically by reading from a prepared text for an hour or so while the software gets used to the quirks of your vocal chords.
Speaker-independent programs have relatively limited vocabularies, and they're generally used to control your computer in some way - running programs, managing files and now, browsing the Web.
ConversaWeb cleverly gets around speaker-independent limitations by supplementing its core vocabulary with the specific words contained in the links on each page. So, while it can reference a dictionary of 130,000 words, it only has to recognize a handful at any one time.
The program has a core vocabulary of 25 commands, such as "Go to Home Page," "Scroll down," "Page up" and "Show Favorites." You can navigate the favorites list the same way you browse the Web - open a folder by saying its name, then pick a Web site and tell the computer to go there.
There are limits to CoversaWeb's abilities. While you can tell it to "Push" a command button that appears on a Web page, you'll still have to fill out forms by typing the information. The program also can't handle links that are contained in some Java-based Web pages.
Its system requirements are pretty hefty - at the minimum you'll need a 100 MHz Pentium processor, 24 megabytes of memory and 7 megabytes of hard disk space. For acceptable performance, you'll probably want a faster processor (a new Pentium MMX is best) and at least 32 megabytes of RAM.
But ConversaWeb delivers what it promises, and it's fun to use. You can download the program from the company's Web site for $29.95 or order a CD for $10 more.
For information, call 888-487-4373 or point your nonspeaking browser to www.conversa.com.
If you don't have Internet Explorer 4.0, you can find at www.microsoft.com/ie/.
I had no problem running ConversaWeb under the Windows 98 beta release.
Send e-mail to mike.himowitaltsun.com.
Pub date: 6/08/98