Imagine a voice dictation system that actually works for more than short messages. Imagine that it could even transcribe a long conversation or a brainstorming session.
That’s been a sort of Holy Grail for voice dictation for a long time. But now it appears that Google has managed to pull it off.
However it turns out that voice dictation is just one of the major new features to come out of the new release of Google Docs announced on Sept. 2. Google also announced a new Research function and a new Explore function.
Research is designed to integrate the process of search with the ability to cut and paste, so that you can, for example, add details from an online encyclopedia to a paper you’re writing on a tablet—along with photos—and do it all quickly and easily with a minimum of touch actions.
Explore is designed to make sense of data that you’ve stored in the Google Sheets spreadsheet app and to display it in a way that makes sense. Of course, that data still has to get into the spreadsheet somehow and you still have to tell Explore what data you want to look at, but according to the details released by Google today, the rest is automatic.
Making document creation and collaboration easier for mobile users is a major focus of the new version of Google Docs, but not everything works with every mobile device. Research and Explore work only on Android, while voice dictation and typing work only on Android and iOS mobile devices. All of the features will work on PCs running Windows and on Macs as long as you use the Chrome browser.
Most of the changes to Google Docs are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For example, there’s a new feature for handling changes in collaborative documents where you can see the newest changes rather than everything that’s been changed since the last time that changes were accepted.
Google also has incorporated a vast array of new templates with some new themes and more flexibility. These should make the basic documents, slides and spreadsheets more personalized for your organization. There are also some big changes in collaboration.
One of the biggest changes to Google Docs is a “Share to Classroom” extension for Google Chrome. This feature is aimed at the education market, but would prove just as useful in any situation where a group is being asked to all look at the same Web page at the same time.
Google uses an example of a fourth grade teacher in a blog entry on the sharing feature, but it would work equally well in a corporate training environment.
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I got a round of approval from my wife, a seventh grade English teacher who has struggled with trying to get a classroom full of students on the same Web page at the same time.
With the classroom sharing feature, the teacher loads a Web page, and then pushes the address to each of the students in the classroom at the same time. If a student subsequently finds a page they want to share with the class, they can send the page to the teacher, who can then re-share it to the rest of the class.
My wife also pointed out something that Google hasn’t mentioned and may not be aware of. It turns out that much of the standardized testing in schools these days takes place using Web-based forms.
This means that at the beginning of each testing session, each student has to type in a long and complex URL so that they can get the right test loaded. It seems that a great deal of time allotted for testing is spent while students try to type in the right address. The classroom sharing feature would eliminate this problem entirely.
Google’s changes in voice transcription could have similar importance in both education and in the corporate world. It’s an inconvenient truth that not everyone types well, and in many cases people really can’t effectively communicate by typing.
There are several reasons for this, ranging from lack of exposure to physical limitations. But while voice dictation has been around for years (I first reviewed it for PC Magazine around 20 years ago), the fact is that it was never easy or cheap.
In fact, computer voice recognition with accuracy sufficient for accurate dictation is only a fairly recent development. Part of the problem was a series of processing algorithms that were inherently error-prone. Recently, Google developed a set of neural networking models that are far more accurate.
To give those networks as much experience as possible, Google funneled its own voicemail traffic through the recognition circuits. The voicemail provided what are essentially grammatical rules as well as recognition material. Now the new voice dictation system is said to have fewer than half the errors the best of the older models had.
These are all nice features, but what’s probably more important is that they’re all relatively available to most people. While the Research and Explore functions don’t work on iOS devices, at least not yet, the other functions and templates will work with most platforms.
This means in areas where collaboration is necessary and training is hard to come by, Google has set the new bar much higher than where it was before. Now we can wait to see how Microsoft and Apple respond to move that bar higher yet.