Words Into Type

College Student Seeks Miracle Machine to Transform Lectures Into Notes

 Q. I've got this professor who talks way too fast for my feeble brain—not to mention my wrist—and my notes are always deficient. What I really need is a digital voice recorder that'll work in a 500-person auditorium, and maybe even convert the lectures into text. Am I living in a dream world?

A. Nah, you're just living in 2004, when such devices are readily available, albeit at a premium. What you're looking for is an integrated-circuit (IC) recorder, as pocket-sized digital recorders are known nowadays. Unlike their late-1990s forefathers, IC recorders can "tape" several hours' worth of sound, and then off-load those files to a computer. The top-of-the-line models even come bundled with voice-recognition software, though it doesn't work nearly as miraculously as advertised.

Mr. Roboto had one of the first digital voice recorders back in the Clinton years, and recalls thinking, "What a rip"—blasted doohickey could barely squeeze in 20 minutes of audio, and forget about PC connectivity. The typical specs for a current model, by contrast, include upwards of five hours of record time, and any recorder worth its salt will include a USB cable for computer hookups. That means you can edit those lectures at a later date, or at least archive them on your hard disk.

illustration: John Ueland

The top two IC recorder brands are Sony and Panasonic, with Mr. Roboto giving an edge to the former. The current fave is the Sony ICD-MS515VTP ($300), which stores data on a removable Memory Stick. That's super-handy if you've got a Sony PC or a Memory Stick reader, as it's a much faster way to transfer files than a plain ol' USB. It also comes with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7, the gold standard in consumer-grade voice-recognition software.

Panasonic's IC recorder line is more of a mess—the latest stateside offering, the RR-US006, doesn't include any voice-recognition software, while the hard-to-find RR-US351 does. The RR-US351 is cheaper than its Sony equivalents—Mr. Roboto tracked down a $109 unit on loftynotion.com—but beware of the record time. Yeah, they say it's 210 minutes, but that's only in long-play mode, which isn't simpatico with NaturallySpeaking. Expect 80 percent less record time when the quality setting is at its maximum.

Any of these models should work just fine in a lecture hall, though you'll want to set the record quality to high. Otherwise, your professor's brilliance may get drowned out by your neighbors' titters, and you'll get stuck with audio that voice-recognition software can't make heads or tails of. From Mr. Roboto's experience, IC recorder files only transfer into halfway accurate text when you hold the device close to your lips.

The skinny from Japan, that mine shaft canary of consumer tech, is that IC recorders are developing more powerful memories, and that could help out with the voice-to-text issues by enabling longer high-quality files. Sony just released the ICD-ST45 on its home turf, and the unit features 128 megabytes of flash memory—eight times what the ICD-ST10's got going on. If the software folks can get on the ball a bit more, maybe you'll never have to exercise that poor wrist again. At least in a classroom setting.


God boycotts Popeyes

Every heated political debate needs a good dose of levity, yes? When it comes to gay marriage, Mr. Roboto's favorite online contributor so far is godhatesshrimp.com, which pokes good-natured fun at the biblical literalist argument. Pick up a T-shirt while you're browsing the (very tiny) site, and ponder joining the boycott of Long John Silver's, Red Lobster, and Popeyes. Popeyes? Hey, man, check out popeyes.com—they've got the "Seafood Celebration" going on, and Lord only knows what sorts of crustaceans lurk beneath the batter.


Love me, do

From the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Mr. Roboto's human alter ego will be guest-blogging on the ever popular gizmodo.com this week, trying his best to cover for departed Gizmodo guru Pete Rojas. Rojas, by the way, left to blog more or less full-time over at engadget.com. He seems to have dug in with gusto, reeling off some cool debut entries about—what else?—Japanese robots. A man after Mr. Roboto's own circuit-laden heart, to be sure.

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