Copyright: David Lawson 1996
Adultery and obsession are raising temperatures behind closed doors at Chesterton's swish West End offices. 'Sometimes this happens at times of tension,' admits deputy chairman Michael de Styrcea. 'First thing in the morning is usually the worst.' The only solution is sitting down for a good, long talk.
'Compulsory,' he snaps at his assistant, a natty little thing reputed to be regularly seen on his arm outside the office. 'Adultery', comes the reply. 'Oops,' he mutters, and the assistant, spreadeagled across the desk, changes visibly. 'Conversation,' he continues. A pause. 'Obsession,' says the assistant. 'Oops,' repeats de Styrcea - and that magic word does the trick again.
This staccato debate hides a slow but growing trust between the two. The only thing that could break the spell would be if the door swung open and a major client swept in to goggle at a senior executive arguing with his portable computer. But within minutes, he would probably be trying the same thing.
The listening computer promises to break down the last barriers between nervous professionals and technology. Now you don't even need to type. Shades of Startrek - or HAL chatting to human crewmates in the film 2001.
HAL went bonkers, however, trying to kill his crew. De Styrcea's portable appears more interested in seduction than murder. But it is learning to behave more correctly. Every 'oops' is a codeword to go back and choose a different word.
'Hereditament,' says de Styrcea, and up pops the correct spelling on the screen. 'I'm not sure some surveyors could do that,' he murmurs.
It all seems like great fun, but this is no high-tech game. Voice recognition software could open many new doors for the property industry. Imagine walking around a building, chatting directly into a computer rather than carrying a tape back to the office and then waiting for it to be typed.'You already can,' says Simon Cocheme of IBM. The company's latest VoiceType software can recognize taped speech, providing the dictation is into a high-quality digital recorder.
More mundane tasks are taking precedence for the moment, however. Letters and reports and memos take up a frustrating amount of time for professionals. High technology was meant to free them from such drudgery. The basic flaw is that many still cannot - or will not type. 'It is still considered beneath their dignity - or they just cannot master it,' says Stephen, IT partner at Weatherall Green & Smith.
That means secretaries remain shackled, and material has to take its place in the queue. 'This could be a way forward,' says de Styrcea. 'We are looking at all sorts of ways that professionals can be more self-sufficient; more able to work away from the office; more able to spend time with clients rather than on office work.'
Removing the typing burden would also help change the role of secretaries. They have traditionally been workhorses, but this wastes talent. Moves to team working puts them more in the bracket of managers, organising work and time for surveyors.
'It may sound pompous, but this is about using technology to liberate people - both surveyors and secretaries,' says de Styrcea.
Voice recognition was invented for disabled people a decade ago but has gradually b been adopted as a professional tool. Lawyers lead the pack of new users. 'That is perhaps because they were slow to become computer-literate,' says Cocheme. As technology has become an essential part of the business, they skipped the stage of learning to type - always considered a demeaning activity for professionals - and began talking to their machines instead.
An extra boost came when times were tough in the recession. Lawyers had always had a high proportion of secretaries to fee-earners - and support staff were the easiest to cut. It also helps that legal documents are long and often repetitive.
Progress can be slow. De Styrcea and a couple of colleagues have recently started testing a system called VoiceWriter from Dragon Dictate, and are still feeling the frustrations of getting the right word to come up on the screen. But Cocheme points out that it takes time to educate a computer into recognizing words. Many of those who have tried and given up will have fiddled around with short letters for a few minutes a day and then wondered why things remain difficult.
De Styrcea says the system he is trying is still not quite quick enough to be a convenient tool. 'If my voice changes because I am tense or tired, the mistakes increase. First thing in the morning is difficult, for some reason. Anyone with a typist available would be very tempted to give up.'
It needs a driving force to keep people going, says Stephen Richardson, who is experimenting with the IBM program. 'You also need the right surroundings. There has to be some privacy, as people can feel embarrassed otherwise.'
That is because words must be articulated slowly and individually. This speeds up with practice, however. IBM claims speeds of 80-plus words a minute compared with around 30 when professionals do their own typing. Just as importantly, accuracy reached more than 90% once the computer has got used to a voice and integrated enough words into the dictionary.
The extra speed comes from constant correction by the program, both by spelling and context. Dragon Dictate requires a user to correct words as they go along. In VoiceType, these are altered later, so users do not need to look at the screen while dictating.
Most people need some training - even if that is just a few hours to 'introduce themselves' to a computer. The system then learns with every correction. IBM has already produced specialised dictionaries for doctors and lawyers to speed this process. Now it is working with firms like WG&S to create a property list.
Users quickly learn significant shortcuts. A special phrase or 'macro' can be designated to produce routine phrases such as 'Dear Sir', commonly used addresses or even whole paragraphs. This could be useful for standard inclusions such as disclaimers in long reports.
IBM has just launched a Windows 95 version of VoiceType it claims requires no training to a users' voice, and can be operated straight out of the box. That means files can be passed to others for amendment or correction. The program plays back the original sounds where there is doubt over a word. And all this can be fed directly into popular word-processing and spreadsheet applications.
Richardson believes the next significant step forward will be when computers can understand natural speech. 'The biggest barrier is learning to dictate discrete words in a slow, methodical way - which some people find they cannot master,' he says.
Once 'indiscrete' natural speech is recognizable, surveyors could carry portables to site inspections and meetings. Researchers say that by the end of the decade they could be talking into a mobile phone linked into a desktop back at the office.
WHO NEEDS IT?
- Big-timers. Firms seeking to rationalise or reorganise support staff and increase flexibility among fee-earners.
- Desk workers. 'You need to be a fairly chunky user, normally spending several hours a day working on reports,' says IBM's Simon Cocheme.
- Small-timers. 'It could be a boon for the one-man-band who cannot type and relies on a part-time secretary,' says Stephen Richardson, of WG&S.
Drivers Jonas is one of the industry leaders in technology applications but the firm tried and rejected voice recognition a year ago.
'We want all our people to learn how to use computers thoroughly rather than take an easy course - and that includes typing,' says partner Mike Lodge. 'We were impressed with the potential of voice recognition but found it cumbersome, tedious to set up and expensive.'
Getting words into a computer is not difficult anyway, he says. Where typing needs rapid transcription, DJ sends out tapes to agencies. The finished material is then e-mailed back, so it is available in the system for the professionals to manipulate.
'The way things look is our priority. We do a lot of letters but most work is in long and complex reports. These must not just be correct but presented in the way we need.' Lodge has not written off further trials as the software improves, however.
WHAT YOU NEED
IBM VoiceType v1 - this is a different animal to the latest model (see below). Written for Windows, it includes a special sound card and needs a 486 computer. The program requires a session of at least an hour reading a script into the microphone. Price 795 pounds (desktop) 875 pounds (laptop)
VoiceType v3 - for Windows 95. Operates with industry-standard soundcards and works 'out of the box'. But this more powerful engine requires a Pentium 90, 40Mb of disk space and a recommended 24Mb of RAM. Price 555 pounds. Contact: 0345 898898.
Dragon Dictate VoiceWrite - costs from around 650 pounds. Three editions, ranging from 10,000 to 60,000 words. Pentium recommended with compatible sound card, 24Mb of disk space and between 6Mb and 8Mb of RAM, depending on size of dictionary. Contact: Dragon Systems 01242 678575.
Voice recognition software is meant to cut costs. Yet cost-cutting is the very reason why it could be slow to make inroads among ordinary agents. 'This is not the best time to be investing heavily in new equipment,' says Alex Brown, a consultant with the Woolwich Building Society.
He is no Luddite. In fact Brown was the driving force in bringing IBM's VoiceType system to the Bexleyheath headquarters, where around 40 staff now use it daily. He also recognizes the potential for hundreds of valuers and surveyors in the Property Services and Elkins subsidiary. They seem ideal users, locked into an endless round of site visits, dictating reports for typing back at the office.
But like most of the country's army of agents, they are unlikely to have bought powerful computers while the market has been flat. And they still find it hard to justify spending around 1,000 pounds on each program and up to three times as much again on new hardware. 'It will come, though. As the market improves, people will jump at the chance of using new technology to gain a competitive edge, says Brown.