Now for the big question: Why do this? Why spend time and money
developing a free program to let people type at 250 words per minute?
What is steno good for?
I can think of a few groups that might benefit from free steno
: People who don't use their voices to communicate, who
would benefit from using a synthesized voice that can speak at
"Writers, programmers, and other people who spend a lot of time
working with text, who would like to set down their thoughts in a more
fluent, natural way, rather than having to type them out laboriously,
letter by letter.
: People who want to
avoid or ameliorate the risk of repetitive motion disorders
such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
: People interested in
mobile/wearable computing and augmented reality.
: People who want to break onto
the high score tables of online typing games, or who spent
months teaching themselves the Dvorak keyboard layout for --
at most -- a 20% increase in speed, because they want to do
everything as quickly and efficiently as possible.
: People who might be
interested in court reporting, captioning, or CART
(communication access realtime transcription) as a career, but
who don't want to invest thousands of dollars in equipment,
software, and training fees before knowing for sure whether
it's the job for them.
I'll take the first group first and follow up on the other ones in
subsequent blog posts.
Many people communicate without using their voices. Some are Deaf,
some have cerebral palsy or other muscular disorders, some are on the
autistic spectrum, and some have issues with their brain, tongue, jaw,
larynx, or lungs which prevent them from producing comfortable or
intelligible speech. Some of these people communicate using sign
language. Others use assistive technology, including speech
Not everyone who uses a speech synthesizer could benefit from steno.
People with paralysis, like Stephen Hawking, don't have full control
over their fingers, so they input text using rocker switches,
sip-and-puff devices, or eye-gaze cameras. Schuyler Rummel-Hudson,
who's 10, currently uses a small computer with pictographic symbols
that stand in for common words and phrases. As she gets older, she
might choose to switch to an alphabet-based system, but pictographs
are sometimes more useful for people who have difficulty with fine
Steno would almost certainly be a great help to people like Roger
Ebert or Alan Doherty, though. They don't have lower jaws, but their
fingers work just fine. Currently they're forced to type everything
they want to say on an ordinary keyboard, either letter by letter or
using predictive text systems, which require around three to four
keystrokes per word. The very best qwerty typist can get up to around
130 words per minute, but normal conversational speed is usually
around 180, and often goes as high as 260 words per minute. People
who rely on qwerty keyboards to communicate face the choice either of
playing back pre-written sentences or requiring long pauses between
each sentence. Either way disrupts the natural rhythm of conversation.
Steno, by design, can be written as fast as English can be spoken. It
also allows for greater fluency of thought (which I'll touch on more
in the segment about writers and programmers), because it works
syllabically rather than letter by letter. For instance, I'll take a
"Whether or not the application is completed depends on your full
That's 78 keystrokes on a qwerty keyboard. On a steno keyboard? Twelve
strokes in all, making it over six times more efficient.
Has anyone used steno for accessibility before? Well, obviously it's
been used for nearly two decades by CART providers like me on behalf
of Deaf and hard of hearing people, but none of my research has turned
up any accounts of disabled people using steno on their own behalf to
communicate. (If you do know of anyone, though, please contact me
! I'd love
to hear about it.) The reason is not too hard to guess: Steno is
ridiculously expensive, and it's got a relatively steep learning
curve. Steno software (which costs around $4,000) is designed
primarily for court reporters, and is not completely compatible with
text-to-speech applications. Steno machines ($2,000 to $5,000) are --
with a few exceptions -- heavy, bulky, and
Virtually everyone who learns steno these days does it because they
intend to make a career out of it. The cost of the technology is
prohibitive to dabblers, hobbyists, and people who don't have the time
or inclination to undergo intensive court reporter training. Plover is
an attempt to eliminate the $4,000 software cost. I'm currently
looking into low-cost solutions for steno hardware. Once those two
barriers are removed, I think the training will largely take care of
itself. It took me a year and a half of intensive practice to get from
0 to 225 words per minute, but I was writing at 100 words per minute
after only a few months, and that was true of nearly all my classmates
as well. Steno is so vastly more efficient than qwerty that even a
beginning stenographer can outstrip the best qwerty typist relatively
People who use assistive technology are uniquely suited for the task.
They're often at their computers for many hours a day and have a high
incentive to learn everything they can about their equipment. It's
almost a truism that people with disabilities are usually the earliest
adopters and most dedicated power users of almost any new technology.
Voice-to-text software, which has proven invaluable to people who are
unable to type, requires as much if not more training time than steno,
as I mention in my post on Voice
Steno can provide the same benefits in the opposite direction. In
addition to people like Mr. Ebert and Mr. Doherty, who can't speak but
are able to hear, steno technology could do a lot for my own clients,
who are primarily Deaf and hard of hearing. Without having to hire a
CART provider, people who are hard of hearing and don't know sign
language can speak to each other using steno as quickly as thought,
with no potential for misunderstanding. People who are Deaf and do use
sign language rather than spoken English can communicate with Hearing
English speakers by writing what they want to say in steno and using
the voice synthesizer to speak for them, rather than having to rely on
hand-written notes when interpreters aren't available.
Even people who don't have any problems with hearing or speaking might
start to use steno, as a way to communicate in noisy clubs or
libraries, or as a high-speed substitute for texting. I'll write more
about that in my wearable computing post, but the bottom line is this:
The more people communicate using steno, the more universally
accessible our society will be.
Qwerty is a venerable and popular input system, but at its best it's
only a third as efficient as human speech. Steno is every bit as
efficient as human speech, and it's been forced into undeserved
obscurity by its high entry cost and inaccessible design. Plover is an
attempt to fix that. I'll keep you posted.