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Voice Mate: The Handheld That Talks

By John M. Williams Big surprises sometimes come in small packages. Case in point: An assistive-technology product called Voice Mate by Paris-based Parrot Industries. Developed for visually impaired customers, it's a talking personal organizer that functions as a phone book, memo pad, appointment calendar, clock, and calculator. All this information can be programmed to be delivered to the user in a computer voice, rather than on a display screen.

And as with many products in this field, Voice Mate can be as handy for people without disabilities as it is for those who are blind or have trouble seeing. I'm not visually impaired, but I found this product very useful. While I don't carry a handheld computer or a cell phone, Voice Mate replaced the black phone book, calendar, calculator, memo pad, and clock that I usually stuff into my brief case.

Plus, you can connect Voice Mate to a cell phone, and it'll automatically dial programmed numbers for you. All you do is call the number up that has been stored in the organizer (the voice tells you when you have reached it) and press a button to dial. You can also connect it to a PC and download information from your computer (this requires a special connector). The device can be carried in a pocket, purse, or worn in a holster.

HEARING THINGS. Each function has simple, easy-to-follow, and clearly understandable voice instructions. On a recent trip to New York, I got into a taxi, and when the driver asked me, "Where are you going?" I instructed the organizer to play the address for the U.N., and he quickly took off.

At $265, Voice Mate isn't all that expensive compared to handhelds like Palms or Visors. The two AAA batteries it uses go a long way, too. I have been using it for a month (23 hours of total use to be exact), and the batteries are still going strong.

Mastering Voice Mate is straightforward. An easily opened cover protects the function keys and number pad. The four keys are arranged in a circle: a "menu" key that lets you access the options for each function; "delete" and "no" keys for getting rid of things you don't want and canceling functions; and a "yes" key for validating and playing back material. Every time you touch a key, the computer voice tells you what command you have executed.

Underneath these four keys are left- and right-arrow buttons for scrolling through entries or settings. The lower part of the keypad is 10 buttons laid out sequentially. Five of them are marked for functions. Again, if you were blind or have difficulty seeing, you simply hit the function key, and it tells you where you are and what you can do in that category.

PRIVATE MESSAGES. An added plus: Voice Mate is a digital tape recorder, too. You can record your own voice by holding down a "click" button on the unit's upper-left-hand side. One quick press wakes up the device. If you double-click, you hear your own recordings.

The handheld doesn't have an on/off button. Opening the lid or punching the click button activates Voice Mate. Within 20 to 30 seconds after you have finished with a function, the device shuts itself off. When you start using it again, the last function you performed is resurrected.

I like my privacy, and while sitting in a cab on my recent New York trip, I was reviewing the dictation of a memo for my meeting. Since I did not want the driver to hear, I used an earplug that comes with the Voice Mate to listen to the message a number of times. The driver clearly didn't hear it. And the earplug stayed firmly in my ear. If RadioShack were smart, it would sell these little devices.

IMPROVEMENTS NEEDED. Voice Mate isn't perfect, of course. The recorder isn't that precise. If there's a lot of background noise when you're recording, you'll pick it up. I learned that the best distance for recording accuracy is about a foot from the speaker.

And Voice Mate would be more valuable if you could more easily store e-mail addresses. I put more than 100 domestic and international telephone numbers and addresses but was able to store e-mail addresses only using a numeric alphabet code for America Online users that I basically had to program into the machine.

Also, the handheld's keypad isn't like a phone keypad. The keys are lined up in a row, 1 through 10, so you can easily tell which is which just by touching them. Still, I think the manufacturer should add Braille to the keys. A blind friend of mine used Voice Mate for a week and suggested that such a change would make the product easier to use. Then again, the numbers on the display are larger than most numbers on many cell phones I have used -- a plus for users with low vision.

In general, Voice Mate's compact form and multiple functions make it ideal for business people -- disabled or not -- who need a lot of information at their finger tips quickly. For more information, visit Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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