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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 6

Product Evaluation

Organize Your Life: A Review of Voice Mate

Are you someone who records important phone numbers on cassettes and then searches for them by rewinding and fast-forwarding? Have you ever accidentally recorded over an important number and had to phone the person who gave it to you a second time? Maybe you are getting tired of trying to keep track of phone numbers by writing them in large print and struggling to read your writing. This article reviews a product that could make your life easier. The Voice Mate is a pocket-sized personal digital assistant (PDA), with digital speech output and voice recognition and a numeric keypad for input. Its features include a phone book, a clock, an alarm, a calculator, an appointment book, and a Memo mode that lets you record short messages.

Description

The Voice Mate measures 5.4 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.6 inches and weighs 5.3 ounces with its four AAA batteries. Across the top on the front of the unit is a 1-inch-high visual display. At the top of the left side are the Record button and a computer serial connection for backing up data. On the right side, the earphone jack is about 1.5 inches from the top. The earphone jack and serial port are not standard and require special connectors from the manufacturer.

Just below the visual display are the Mode button and the microphone. Below these two controls is a covered compartment that opens to reveal the rest of the Voice Mate's buttons. You open the compartment using notches located at the top left and right of the cover. At the top of the compartment, four slanted buttons form a circle around the speaker. These buttons are Menu (top left), Erase (top right), Yes (bottom left), and No (bottom right.) Below these buttons are the Left and Right arrow buttons, which cycle through different options depending on the application currently being used. Below the arrow buttons is a familiar, 12-key phone pad.

Voice Mate settings are changed in the Control Panel, where you can adjust the voice volume, change the level of help, turn Accessibility mode on or off, and send and receive data. The most important setting is the Keyboard Lock option. This option prevents unauthorized speaking, such as the announcement of a friend's name and phone number, when the Voice Mate is jostled by something in your backpack.

Voice Mate

Caption: Voice Mate.

Hello, Operator?

The phone book is a major reason for buying the Voice Mate. It allows you to record, retrieve, and edit phone numbers and addresses digitally. It provides a simple way to keep track of the contact information for family members, friends, and colleagues, especially if you don't carry, or don't want to be constantly accessing, a braille note taker.

The Voice Mate prompts you to record the name of each person you add to the phone book twice to obtain a good-quality recording. It then prompts you for the person's phone numbers, which may include home, work, cellular, and fax numbers, as well as an address. You can speak the phone numbers or type them in on the keypad. You can then find a person's phone number by pressing the Record button and speaking the person's name. You can also use the arrow keys to cycle through phone book entries.

The Voice Mate dials a phone number for you if you select the person you want to call, hold the unit near the phone's mouthpiece, and push the Record button twice. It then announces the phone number for confirmation or gives you a chance to hang up the phone if you have second thoughts.

You can change Phone book settings by pressing the Menu key, followed by the right arrow key. Doing so allows you to turn on the prompt for cellular or fax number, change the speed and volume at which tones are played when dialing a number, and rerecord a person's name or address.

Take a Memo

How often have you chatted with a new acquaintance or friend, when the person has mentioned a book that you want to read or the name of someone who may give you a job? Until the "pencil for the blind" is invented, Voice Mate may well be the most portable and efficient way of addressing this problem. Simply choose the Memo function, press the Record button, and speak your memo. The Voice Mate records as long as you are pressing the Record button and stops recording when you release it. Later, using the left and right arrow keys, you can cycle through your own voice recording until you locate the memo you want. Later, if you want to add additional information to your memo, Voice Mate allows you to edit it— deleting or inserting additional information.

Get Me to the Church on Time, but Don't Remind Me!

For people who are unable to use print effectively for keeping a calendar of appointments, the Voice Mate's Appointment feature may well be its most welcome. With a simple "voice tag" identifying the appointment, you can store and retrieve it. In the body of the appointment memo itself, you can record more details to refresh your memory. Later, you can search for the appointment by speaking its voice tag or search the date by pressing the corresponding numbers on the phone-style key pad. For example, if you have an appointment with Michael Kelly on September 1 to celebrate his birthday, you would first select the appointment feature, hold down the Record button, and speak the tag "Michael Kelly." The Voice Mate asks you if you want to make an appointment. If you press Yes, you are asked to record the tag again. After repeating the tag "Michael Kelly," you are asked to enter the date on the numeric keypad and are then given an opportunity to record details of the appointment, such as "Dinner at the Celestial restaurant with Michael Kelly for his birthday."

Later, if you want to check to see when that dinner is, you select Appointment, press the Record button, and speak the tag "Michael Kelly." This time, when asked if you wish to make an appointment, press the No Button, and if an appointment already exists that matches this tag, the unit locates and plays it back for you. Be mindful, however, that this is voice recognition, not artificial intelligence. If your tag actually said "Mike Kelly" or "Mickey Kelly," the Voice Mate will be unable to find it until you speak the matching tag.

If you want to search for available times on a given date, Voice Mate will announce all the appointments on that date. If you want to browse through a particular series of days to see what you have going on, you can do so by using the left and right arrow keys. No matter what order you happen to schedule your appointments in, Voice Mate stores them chronologically, making browsing through a week or month a quick and convenient process.

Voice Mate asks you two more questions when you store an appointment. First, it asks if you would like to have a reminder. Next, it asks if you would like to have a notification beep. The second question is straightforward. If you choose Yes, a notification beep will sound at the time you have scheduled. This alarm is a sequence of beeps, sufficiently unique to draw your attention immediately, repeated four times. (To interrupt it, you simply open the door covering the buttons, and the alarm shuts off.)

The first question, however, "Do you wish to have a reminder?" is an area that could use additional work. If you answer yes to this question, Voice Mate asks you to select the interval for reminders, anywhere from minutes to years. Let's say you have made an appointment to call your mother at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday evening, October 14, 2001. You choose a reminder in minutes, and press 5 on the keypad for it to occur every five minutes. This means that at 6:05, 6:10, 6:15, and onward until midnight on October 14, the notification beep will sound off, reminding you to call your mother. Now, let's say that a friend calls to tell you that your favorite movie is going to be repeated on Sunday, October 14, at 8:00 p.m. When you try to make the appointment, Voice Mate announces that you already have an appointment at that time. The same barrier to scheduling any appointment that happens to occur at five-minute intervals between 6:00 p.m. and midnight on that date will present itself. You can get around this obstacle by scheduling your 8:00 p.m. movie at, say, 7:59 or 8:01, but you would then have to remember that the interference was caused by a five-minute reminder for a 6 p.m. appointment.

The explanation for this problem is, in part, one of language. The Voice Mate was created in France and thus French was its native language. "Recurring" or "ongoing" may more accurately describe the function intended when this feature was added. In other words, if you want the Voice Mate to "remind" you to take your medicine at noon every day, you would set the appointment for today and choose to have a "Reminder" on a "Daily" basis. Thus, every day at noon, you would hear the notification beep for the appointment to take your medicine. While changing the name of the feature may clarify it for some English-speaking users, it still won't change the way in which "reminders" are programmed. If youchoose to take your medicine at noon every day and have the Voice Mate remind you, you need to remember that 12:00 p.m. is not an available slot for any other appointment. The easiest way around this problem, until it is addressed by the company, is simply never to choose the Reminder option.

Does Anyone Know the Time?

When you cycle to the Clock feature by pressing the Mode button on the front of the Voice Mate, the simplest thing you can do is check to see what time it is. If you press the Record key twice, the Voice Mate will announce for you the current time, date, and alarm setting if one is set.

When you cycle to the Clock feature and open the door, Voice Mate prompts you with two choices: You can change the clock or change the alarm. Both procedures are fairly intuitive, and Voice Mate verbally prompts you through them. When setting the date, it is necessary to press all four digits, rather than the final two, and a time designation must always be completed by pressing 0 for confirmation of a.m. or p.m. If the alarm is set, you will be treated to a pleasant rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," which is repeated every five minutes until you open the door.

You Can Count on Me

The Voice Mate's calculator is simple to use. The Left and Right arrows become Times and Divided By, and the Yes and No buttons become Plus and Minus. The Erase key is the Clear key. The number keys do what you would expect; the Star is the decimal point, and the Pound key is Equals.

The Menu key provides access to additional features. By pressing it, followed by the right arrow key, you have the following options: percent, Memory Set, Memory Recall, and Currency Conversion.

The calculator has trouble announcing large numbers. It reads 50,888,850 as "50 million 800 and 88 thousand and 800 and 50."

The Bottom Line

Although Voice Mate has its quirks, it is a versatile device in an esthetically pleasing handheld package. The voice is a clear, female one whose midpoint volume setting is adequate for most surroundings. The unit requires four AAA batteries, and customers have reported considerably varied experiences with battery life. The units we tested lasted from four to eight weeks before the batteries needed to be changed. When the batteries fail, however, Voice Mate gives you little notice, requiring you to change the batteries almost immediately once the verbal reminder has been spoken. If the batteries fail completely, however, the only serious loss of memory is the current date and time setting. All other data remain intact. If you are interested only in storing phone numbers and keeping your appointments organized, the Voice Mate is well worth the price. The Memo feature, clock, alarm, and calculator are added bonuses that many will enjoy.

Product Information

Product: Voice Mate.

Manufacturer: Parrot SA, 28 rue Meslay, F. 75003 Paris, France; phone: 888-936-0001 (USA), 33 0 1,44,78,81,10 (France); fax: 33 0 1,48,87,87,34; e-mail: arlette.kotchounian@parrot.fr; web site: http://www.voice-assistant.com. Price: $259.

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