Over the last several years I've been dealing with various stages of disability thanks to ALS. My goal is to share solutions and review various products/tools/devices that I have found particularly helpful.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Voxcommando and the Blue Snowflake microphone

As you know, I've been in progress of transferring my computer usage from the desktop to something more portable. My Windows Surface 3 tablet. Part of the reason for doing so is in preparation for the likelihood that ALS will eventually take or compromised my ability to speak. Setup is going rather well, but in the meantime my voice is still hanging in there! Which is great as this gives me another level of control over my computer environment.

Obviously, one of the first things I did was install Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictation. And one of the first things that became apparent, was the built-in microphone on my tablet… To state it politely… Sucks for dictation. It is however just fine for things like a Skype.

Secondly, one of the biggest things that I have found to be missing from the Dragon naturally speaking basic and premium is the ability to execute macros by voice. Sure, the premium edition (which is the one I have, version 11.5) allows you to create some custom commands. But these extend to being little more than pasting predefined text… So far other than items like your address, phone number and perhaps a few passwords… It is not terribly useful. You cannot tell it to do a set of predefined actions or anything more complicated. Above all, there is no way to use the Windows key through voice commands. This removes very basic, managerial functionality from my desktop and that it use all the time. Such as snapping a window to the left or right of the screen…

Sure, you can do this in the Dragon NaturallySpeaking Professional edition, but you need to be prepared to spend over $500 and the a programmer.

This brings us to:

The Blue Snowflake Microphone

like I said, for dictation the built-in microphone on the tablet doesn't work very well. I was continually getting poor audio quality warnings and disconnections. As you know, if you use Dragon it recommends using a headset for the best results. Having ALS and no function of my Hands eliminates that option for me. So after looking around at a few desktop microphone options, and trying a few cheap alternatives. I settled on trying in blue snowflake.

I found it on Amazon.ca for about $50. It is small, compact and sits nicely on the top right-hand corner of my tablet. There are no drivers to install or manage. Just plug it in via USB and it works! It is advertised as providing a near professional sound recording quality. And though I have not tried it for that specifically. It works extremely well with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Almost as well as a headset. I do have a few misrecognitions, but the frequency is such that it could be just the changes to my speech brought on by the wonderful ALS. When using it in a quiet environment, I have very few poor quality audio warnings.

Apparently, the microphone is somewhat directional as well. Which would obviously help with eliminating the background noise.

The one issue I have found is more to do with the tablet and anything else. It has a single USB port. Into which I have to run my eye tracker and the microphone, necessitating a hub. It would seem that the power supply from the tablet to the house is ever so slightly insufficient to power both (three if you count the hub) devices. The eye tracking seems to fail and reset a bit more frequently as opposed to when it is directly plugged into the tablet.

This could be a simple fix, I have yet to try it. But I may just have to find a different hub which has its own power supply.

Long story short, the blue snowflake microphone is a relatively inexpensive, and excellent upgrade to the system. The far superior to any other best top microphone I have used.


As mentioned above, Dragon NaturallySpeaking really is excellent for dictation but has a huge gap in what I would consider essential functionality for voice control over your computer. This gap is filled in beautifully by Voxcommando. In short, it allows you to the family easily set up predefined VoiceCommands which can be used to execute a macro on your system. It also comes with a whole bunch of predefined plug-ins which will also allow you to voice control your:
  1. Vera home automation system 
  2. Hue lights
  3. iTunes
  4. XBMC (Both local and remote)
  5. Windows media Center
These are but a few of the default profiles it comes with. As you become more familiar with it though is a whole bunch more plug-ins you can modify and work with. All relatively easily.

As you know, I've been playing with home automation systems for some time. I've tried voice control through Siri proxy and raspberry pi, writing my own Windows  speech recognition scripts and so forth to varying degrees of success. But right out-of-the-box, if you run Voxcommando in Vera or Hue mode. After a few minor settings like the IP address and generating XML (by pushing a button and voxcommando) you will have voice control over your environment. Which for me is huge! It is by far the easiest way to get voice control.

For me, I have found it works very nicely in conjunction with Dragon NaturallySpeaking. As a matter of fact, both programs are running right now I have Dragon actively dictating, with Voxcommando in standby mode. Where it passively listens but will not activate the command unless a prefix word is said first. So what I typically do, is I tell Dragon to "go to sleep" and then use my keywords followed by the command to activate voxcommando. Then, whenever you turn to dictation simply tell Dragon to "wake up".

As with anything, there is of course a bit of a learning curve. But, setting up the basic commands is extremely easy and the website provides some very good tutorials for getting started.

Voxcommando has lots of default Windows command you can work work to manage your environment. Including the Windows key. However, being the geek that I am and wanting to completely have dominion over my systems… It is very easy to marry up voxcommando with auto hotkey. This gives you complete control to do literally anything. Just to give you an idea, I've always found desktop real estate to be at a premium. Even more so on the tablet where screen space is limited. Using voxcommando with auto hotkey, it is very easy to create a script that will snap a window to say the top left of the screen. Rather than just the the left side.

The script for auto hotkey was also very easy to write. You could either write a whole bunch of one off the scripts that do specific things. But personally I found this to be cluttered and unpleasant to manage. I use a single script which is executed by voxcommando which passes in a command line parameter (e.g. SnapTopLeft) which is caught and then executed by auto hotkey.

If you use voice control for anything, or even want to give it a try. I highly recommend voxcommando. It is a free unrestricted trial, meaning all features are available but will require a restart after I believe 25 commands. If you want to buy it, it is only $40 Canadian which provides you with to license keys.

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