Talon is amazing

Published on , 1939 words, 8 minutes to read

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Cadey is coffee

When I was writing this post, I was in a unique level of flow state working with Talon. It's probably gonna come across a little bit weird. Sorry!

In my last article I discussed the voice control challenge, it is a very simple thing: put your hands at your sides and use only your voice to do your daily tasks. In essence, doing this makes you get exposed to what it is like for people who have to rely in these technologies on a daily basis.

For many of you reading this post, this is just a thought experiment. This is something that you try once or twice and then go back to normal. It can be frustrating, none of your applications will work correctly. Selecting some UI elements may be difficult or even impossible.

One way to look at a challenge like this is to help you train empathy for those who have to rely on this technology. it can make you feel powerless. This is a feeling that we rarely get to have as technologists.

The thing that I really feel exemplifies the difficulty of the voice control challenge is controlling a text editor. Text editors require arbitrary keyboard inputs. They require pressing weird key binds. Doing this with voice control on a mac or iPad can be difficult to impossible.

However, dictation like this is really great for writing large blocks of text. Human speech can peak it around two hundred words per minute, and that's where most dictation engines can really shine.

But, we're technologists. For many people being able to write basic emails and messages is more than enough. Statistically, if you're reading this blog, you probably need to do more. A lot more. We regularly have to speak in the arcane sigils of foreign languages in order to command automatons into doing our will. When you think about it, programming is actually a lot like witchcraft, except we don't call ourselves witches for some reason.

During my adventure through assistive technology, I found a program named Talon. Talon is a software that allows you to control a computer with your voice, but you can use it for programming and it is programmable. The somewhat fiddly process of making your own commands in voice control on a Mac or an iPhone vanishes. You can write commands in something that looks vaguely like Python, or in Python itself:

evil normal:

This creates a new command that presses the escape key when you say "evil normal". You can replace this command with anything you want. You aren't limited to just pressing individual keys, you can do just about anything you can imagine. You can insert arbitrary strings of text, run python functions, bully around google chrome, or just about anything that you can do with programming.

Cadey is enby

This entire post was written with Talon. Even the outline. Even this HTML tag. People on Discord can confirm this.

Through sheer luck, I actually managed to talk with the person behind Talon recently when I was on a work trip. After using the software for about a week, I am convinced that this person is literally making a positive impact on this planet. This program is an empowerment tool. It was originally written so this person could continue to code without incurring massive hand pain, but it is also useful for people that can't use their hands at all.

This program is a labor of love for this person, and it really shows.

Talon slaps

After I figured out how to set things up and use it, I can confidently say that Talon is revolutionary. I can leave my hands in my lap, and continue to code. I can look at the screen or look off into the distance and think about what's going on, and I can just let the words flow out. There's a unique feeling that you end up getting when you get really good at using vim and other text editors, all the barriers start to drift away and you really just start to think about the substance of what you are doing rather than the exact hand motions. I get this kind of feeling with Talon. All the details float away and I'm really able to just focus on my mental model of what's going on, where I am, and where I want to get to. Once you learn the commands in order to interact with things, it just becomes effortless.

One of the most interesting parts about Talon is how it acts kind of like vim. There are several different modes that Talon can be in:

This is a lot similar to vim's normal and append modes. A lot of the commands function similar to vim motions too. A lot of them are simple instructions that can take arguments much like vim motions. Combine that with optional repetitions and other suffixes, and it really becomes a ballet of language and commands together. For example, here is a little bit of go code and the equivalent Talon motions:

func add(x int, y int) int {
    return x + y

This code will become the following Talon motions:

word funk delete cap space word add args plex sit near trap comma
space yank space sit near trap go right space sit near trap space
brack slap
space fourth word return space plex plus yank slap
r brack

This may look incomprehensible, but let me split it out into individual commands and explain what they do:

word funktype the word "funk"
deletepress the backspace key
captype the letter "c"
spacepress the spacebar
argstype both parentheses and press the left arrow key to go inside them
plextype the letter "x"
sittype the letter "i"
neartype the letter "n"
traptype the letter "t"
yanktype the letter "y"
go rightpress the right arrow key
bracktype the left curly brace {
slappress the enter key
space fourthpress the four times
plustype the plus sign "+"
r bracktype the right curly brace }

Overall these are all the commands you do by hand with a keyboard. It just looks a bit more awkward, but this is what happens when you try to force sigils out of your voice.

This has been bending my brain backwards into a pretzel and then setting that pretzel on fire. All of the Talon motions are weirdly useful. They feel like they were created intentionally and with purpose to help you do your job. Some of them are legitimately faster than typing things by hand, such as the text formatters:

This is really cool. Something interesting about using voice for this means that you are not limited by the number of keys on a keyboard, or the programmability of the keyboard in general. The human voice is a much more flexible tool than we give it credit. This allows us to create commands that can do just about anything, with just about any sound to trigger it.

Isn't that metal as all hell?

As I've been going down this rabbit hole, another thing I did not expect to have is an intuitive knowledge of how many letters each word is. Just looking at words I can figure out how many characters away different things are from other characters. This is very important when you have to specify the number of times you need to move an arrow key.

I've always had a sort of intuitive understanding of vim motions. I've never quite had the need to learn how to say them, or what they are all doing. Saying them out loud has forced me to understand what I am saying with vim motions, and as a result I am able to think in them a lot more clearly. A lot of things make a lot more sense when you have to say them out loud repeatedly. Changing modes becomes even more intuitive. Jumping around with the different movement motions becomes even more easy. And the delete motion just starts making a lot more sense overall.

I won't lie, this is causing me to bend my brain backwards. A lot of the programming did I do with Talon ends up sounding like I'm having a stroke or something though. In vim the main command to save a file is :w<enter>. This means you end up saying "colon whale slap" a lot. People don't know how to react to this.

Numa is delet

I guess this is why we call them keystrokes :3

Cadey is enby

Someone on Discord asked me why I was slapping whales so much when I was trying to write some code with Talon on a voice call. I was saving the file. The person wasn't watching my stream and had no context. I can't blame them for being confused.

Overall though, I have infinite respect for anyone who has to use this type of software on a daily basis. this is very useful software, but it can be deeply frustrating at first. Struggling through using applications like Discord or Slack with this technology should be made mandatory for everyone designing the UI in them. I feel that doing that would make people a lot more humble and empathetic to users' needs.

This truly is technology where everyone can benefit from it getting better. Voice recognition software getting better means that automatic captions for things like YouTube get better. People who are paraplegic or even quadriplegic can start to live normal lives in spite of their disability.

The kind of people who have to rely on this technology on a daily basis have a hard enough life already. As someone who is in a field that is deeply unethical, this is one of the greatest things we can due to help truly ensure equitable outcomes.

If you write applications, regularly test them with voice control software. Especially if it's in a browser. Few companies do this, so there is a clear market advantage in making things more accessible.

My hands have been getting better, but I can easily see myself continuing to use talon in the future even after they fully recover. It is one of the few dictation engines I have used that is able to keep up with my rate of speech. I have been using it for most of my chat messages for the last week or so, and I can easily see myself using this for chat messages in the future. It makes me feel like I've wasted all that time learning how to type quickly when I could just use dictation.

If you have some extra money, please donate to the creators of Talon on Patreon. They deserve it for making software that it powers people like this.

Facts and circumstances may have changed since publication. Please contact me before jumping to conclusions if something seems wrong or unclear.

Tags: dictated, voiceControl, talon