Calling All Road Audio Warriors...

Monday, February 15, 2016

Despite the existence of mass transit here, long car trips are a fact of life in the Baltimore-DC area, which the Van Horn family now calls home, and I've been looking for ways to use this time for writing when I am alone. Any portion of a trip that is on rail is already covered since lots of baby-holding over the past few years has inspired me to use my phone for the purpose quite effectively: You could just about drop me into the jungle with nothing but a phone and I'd be able to produce.

Unfortunately, driving puts me almost back to Square One since it handicaps any writing session with the near-equivalent of handcuffs, a blindfold, and demands on my attention. But I don't think that time has to completely go to waste. (Doing this with other people in the car would almost always be a no-go, even if I wanted to try: Most people want to listen to music or talk in such situations. Both activities would only further tax my attention, which is more valuable for writing than free hands or vision, as you will see below. Hah! Look at what technology has made me able to say about writing!)

Recalling my earlier thoughts on my writing work flow, I'll list the same steps here and note where I am with each, in the context of driving. I do not number these steps, because they needn't occur in any particular order during any given session as I explained in the post linked above.

  • Find something to write about. This problem is licked. I don't want or need to do this in the car. A few minutes beforehand with Google or my computer-generated list of possibly-interesting news is all it takes to find interesting leads. Thanks to the @Voice Aloud Reader, I can send links or documents to a queue in this app. This app leverages my smart phone's built-in text-to-voice capability to read a set of articles. Using it is much like using a music player. For example, it will read one article repeatedly or go through a list in order or at random. So, some time before I drive, I find a bunch of material and queue it up to "read." I have been doing this on errands a lot lately and am satisfied with my comprehension level. The app has a provision for pausing with a headset controller, but I have not tried this yet. Assuming it works, I can stop to take notes any time. Since I don't want to take my eyes off the road to fumble around on my phone, I use another device for note-taking as I state below.
  • Think about what I want to say. This can go on in the back of my mind, and if I want to take a quick note, I have a small digital recorder I can safely and discreetly hold in one hand and operate with my thumb. Playing back a brief note later, while using my phone's built-in audio input method and a note-taking app can produce a reasonable transcript that I can use later, but see the next item.
  • Say it. I also attempted to record a brief introduction to this post to simulate actually trying to blog. Longer passages, and perhaps my speaking speed or my Southern accent are proving too much for the transcription method I just outlined. Here's part of what I got from my introduction:
    ... if I'm driving an hour each way every day and I think there is right now driving in like a total blonde while driving and the general outline is this short periods of free time and shortly after I wake up or go to bed I came in with I've got some I love how long these on my way I can safely say these links to take you in an app on Google Play on Android app called voice read aloud which is really neat and leverages Android or Google Voice to Text the voice technology of the inventory in my phone I'm able to I'm trying to several times already I can comprehend what is normally just read for a while I can play it back easily and acts just like a Music app you can play one song or one selection over again you can play random so my headset controller to turn off the app and speak notes into a small voice recorder hamster between...
    Apart from this Joycean talk of hamsters and blondes being slightly amusing, this is useless. It is quicker to start over from scratch than to try to figure out what I was saying and then edit it. I haven't tried speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y yet, but this is my biggest pain point right now. I will ask for your help later, but please do read my criteria further down before spending your time on a reply.

    Of course, it may be possible to train myself to speak in a way that generates fewer errors, but I am not optimistic. I also would prefer to avoid playing back audio unless I need to figure out what I really said. (I certainly don't expect any dictation software to be completely accurate.)
  • Publish it. Obviously, since this requires editing and an interactive web interface, I have no plans to try this while driving!
What I suspect I need is some sort of dedicated speech-to-text software, or perhaps a better Android or Chrome voice-to-text app than Evernote. If you might have a suggestion, I require the following: (1) Operating System: Android, Chrome, Linux, or Windows, (2) Data files must be in a non-proprietary format or easy to export to one, (3) The software is free (as in beer) or I can purchase a copy outright. (4) I do not have to buy or subscribe to other products (e.g., MS Word) just to make the software work. A nice-to-have would be -- and given that it's dictation software, it seems like something someone would have thought of -- that I can use voice to control the software. This last would enable me to just start the suite on, say, a laptop or tablet in my front seat and let it run while I drive, ready for any dictation. This would be nice, too, because it would eliminate having to play back audio, except for editing.

I'll end on a couple of interesting notes. First, my desire to operate hands-free for safety has led me to using two devices, fortuitously solving a problem I thought I might have: The earphones will keep any computer reading out of any recording (or, if I am using dictation software in the car, any dictation file). Second, if I find a good dictation solution, I can also listen to news or talk radio and get a transcript/take notes, making that source of writing material easier to use.

If you have any suggestions, please comment below or email me. Thank you for your time.

-- CAV

P.S. I figure that it's worth asking about how I can write while on the road, but I realize I may have unrealistic aspirations. If that turns out to be true, I look forward to more book "reading" than I have had in the past few years.


Today: Minor edits.


Todd Walton said...

I am curious to know if the style, quality, or tone of your writing changes when you're dictating it versus typing it. I find I have a slightly different frame of mind when I'm on the road, compared to, say, sitting at my desk at work.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hi Todd,

I don't have a lot of data yet, but I have noticed that I tend to "think out loud" a lot more than I was aware. When at a keyboard, I end up pausing or editing a lot, but on a microphone -- and this is new to me -- I tend to mis-speak or quickly rephrase things right after saying them once. This is a nightmare to edit even without extra errors from voice-to-text software.

This is why I think more practice could help, although it may be that I will have to confine audio "writing" to note-taking.

I, too, have a different frame of mind on the road. I put much of this down to distraction, even in minimal traffic.