Speech Recognition Demands Quiet Computers

The Silent Front

February 25, 2003 -- by Mark L. Pearson, http://www.m-cbs.com

The coverage of SPCR in the March 2003 issue of PC World continues to draw comments from new and interesting corners of the quiet PC "movement". I had never thought about speech recognition in the context of quiet computing, but as soon as Mark Pearson mentioned it, the connection was so obvious. Mark has been providing computer speech recognition solutions and building quiet PCs for clients for many years. His company M-CBS was the winner of the Microsoft Office XP Challenge for the Northwest region — contestants vied to present the most creative use of Office XP. M-CBS has been featured on the Microsoft Web site and in the Oregon Trial Lawyers newsletter. While Mark's machines may not rank with the quietest efforts of SPCR members, the fact that they have been accepted and used continuously in business environments is significant. In this article, Mark shares with us some of the insights into quiet computing and speech recognition that he has gleaned over the years, and gives us a few more strong reasons to keep pursuing the silent grail.

- Mike Chin, Editor

In 1998 I had been observing speech recognition clients for five years and the failure rate was about 60% over the long term. I have always been on the look out for techniques that would reduce this failure rate. (Our current failure rate is about 5% and that is the result of computer literacy issues not speech recognition technology failure).

A conversation with one of my counterparts in Spokane, Washington included a discussion about hardware as it relates to speech recognition. I applied her experience to my work and found that a quiet computer did make a significant difference in reducing failure rates in speech recognition technology and had the additional benefit of improving the acoustic environment, and reducing stress and tenseness from excess computer noise.

Later, my colleague went to work for the computer company that had been building her quiet computers. I purchased a number of computers for my clients from her with excellent results. She chose top of the line parts and quiet parts. When her company went out of business I decided to build my own computer for my clients incorporating quiet technology.

Mark Pearson trains his business PCs to be quiet and listen well.

In another conversation with a friend who builds computers by the hundreds, my work with quiet components came up. He said, “bring one of your machines in and we'll see if there is a difference." Of course I was sure that I would look stupid no matter what happened. I wish I could have taken a picture of everyone’s face that day. All the computers that were in operation were shut off. My machine with its quiet components was still running. No one could hear my machine with or without the cover. The revelation that day was not only could computer noise cause failure in speech recognition applications but also an awareness that computer noise contributed dramatically to a feeling of tenseness, significantly compromising the work environment. With the noisy machines off and my quiet machine running, a feeling of tenseness was noticeably absent.

As my quest for accuracy and low noise continued, my new-found understanding of noise-related stress prompted me to talk to another friend who deals with stress issues with his patients. His first comment to me was “in order to reduce stress in the office get rid of the metal and use real wood wherever possible."

As a result I decided to make computer cases from wood, and include computer electronics in custom built wood computer work station furniture. I have built custom wood furniture in the past for the same reasons I now build custom computers – to maintain the quality and integrity of what I furnish to clients. We have named this product the PineBox Computer.

Having now melded the relationship between accuracy, noise, and a healthy acoustic environment further insights have emerged. Not only can noise compromise the computing experience but odors, images and colors can have a dramatic influence on speech recognition accuracy, and ultimately success of an installation. Of all of these factors, however, I believe noise is still the most important. In one case, I moved a computer 30 feet and the difference in accuracy went from 80% to close to 100% with the same speaker. If just moving the machine to a more noise friendly location can produce such results its not difficult to imagine the advantage of a customized quiet computer.

M-CBS's wooded oasis: "I humbly attempt to practice what I preach."

In order to think through complex technology issues including speech recognition and create custom solutions for my clients, I have placed my office on 160 forested acres. I humbly attempt to practice what I preach. That is, that the work environment contributes dramatically to the quality of the product. I take my time and the computers that leave my office are right the first time. If there are any computers problems on-site we look to learning curve, electrical or environmental issues before we start pulling out hardware.

The result is a long term client relationship based on learning and environment rather than just servicing a warranteed part. The final outcome is the client's work environment is significantly improved and the value of their products improves accordingly. For example, a project I did transferring data from software that is no longer available to new formats, building the computer and creating training materials, took three full days. When the client calls we are able to answer their training questions, not configuration questions because we took the time and effort to get it right the first time. By obsessing over detail, installing quiet components, using custom wood cabinets and nurturing a long term client relationship based on training not trouble shooting, a superior computing experience results.

What we have found that works:

1. Lok Tite on the screws everywhere except the system board on the speech recognition computers we furnish.

2. Dynamat material on the power supply, the different drives (one to two inch strips), inside the case at the top and on the removable cover.

3. We use the Ultra-Quiet PSU from PC Power and Cooling, plus four quiet fans from PC Power and Cooling to keep the processor and components cool.

4. Our preference for hard drive is Seagate single platter ST340016A.

5. DVD Drives are Sony.

6. System boards are Intel with RD RAM.

7. Sound card is Audigy 2 by Creative Labs.

8. P4 Intel Chips (Note: We use the fan that comes with the chip. We tried other fans and came to the conclusion for the difference and the hassle we did not pickup enough, plus during this time it appeared as though Intel made a change that made their fans quieter.)

9. Rounded IDE cables – flat floppy drive cables. We found that rounded floppy cables seemed to be reversed and did not work.

10. Tying the cables to the case to improve airflow, look neat, and reduce anything that is restrictive.

11. Windows XP Pro using the NTFS format loading from original CD. We do have one configuration where we use Win 2000 SP3.

12. Software all loaded from original CD and tested before the computer is shipped. Included software is Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Office XP with speech recognition, a special configuration of PaperPort to accomplish less paper.

13. If the client will let us, we create a focused menu system based on the computer function which is loaded in the startup folder. The reasoning behind this is that the computer user does not have to look for the icon, it is always in the same place (desktops get messed up, menus are shifted), plus a lot of functions can be combined (Example: Six clicks to get to a file versus one, for a process that was done many times each day).

14. Use USB whenever possible and work toward all USB 2.0 devices.

Mark's preference appears to be for a tall tower case; large cases are generally easier to cool.

To reduce the printer noise in the office we use a special configuration of PaperPort by Scansoft. We have been able to reduce the printing in our office by 90%, and are heading toward getting rid of the metal filing cabinets and the storage area.

Through some strange electrical problems we learned that the back of the circuit breaker should be checked every few years. This can add a buzzing to the sound system. We ask our clients to have an electrician come on-site before we deliver equipment. In many cases the wall socket needs to be replaced also.

What we have found does not work:

1. Rushing. We have a standard policy that a computer is burned in five days. I do not deviate from this rule period. I take the time in my environment, so if there is anything wrong, we identify what is wrong in the client environment, and then fix it.

2. Enforcing warranties: Computer hardware in the quality components has such a small failure rate that when a part does fail we want to know why. We have had very poor experiences enforcing warranties and have come to the conclusion that a no warranty on the parts is the most realistic direction for our clients. The parts that usually have a problem are under a couple of hundred dollars and are more of a nuisance then anything else.

The last warranty item I tried to help with cost $130 – it was the main switch (hub) for a legal office and it has been four weeks since the claim has been filed. When it does come in, it will be a spare for the future.

Warranties also do not replace parts with new parts. To maintain the quality of the installation we replace problem parts with new parts. Most parts problems show up in the five day burn in.

3. Using inexpensive parts to compete with national brand products. To date we have had one part failure on-site with quite a few computers in operation at this time. In the case of this part failure, it ended up not to be a part failure, rather an old piece of software loaded in Win XP that caused simulated hard drive failure. I am using the hard drive that supposedly failed currently in my office and have been for the past year.

In conclusion, we take the position that the computer will be an integral part of a person's life. It is our policy to build and configure the equipment to individual specifications so the client may enjoy an esthetically pleasing, low stress, error free computing experience. Our clients include major universities, major healthcare institutions, legal professionals, government, medical professionals. The primary application has been speech recognition for the past nine years. Within the past year we have been helping clients with general computer systems using the same techniques we have learned with speech recognition to improve the over all computing experience.

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