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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Do it yourself Siri for the Mac…kinda

I want to talk to my computer.

Okay, I guess nothing’s stopping me from talking to my computer—I just want it to respond, instead of sitting there in its normal stoic judgment like it usually does.

Since the introduction of Siri back in 2011, I’ve been looking forward to the day where my Mac would also respond to my spoken commands.1 Four years later, it doesn’t seem like Apple—or, at least, the people at Apple in a position to make such a thing come to pass—shares my enthusiasm. But fear not: with just a little bit of tweaking, you can make a poor substitute for Siri on your Mac. Here’s how.


  1. It doesn’t have to be in Majel Barrett’s voice, but it wouldn’t hurt… ↩

Step 1: Enable Dictation

Our first stop is the Dictation & Speech preference pane. Open it up and select the Dictation tab. You’re probably already familiar with OS X’s ability to accept dictation, added back in OS X Mountain Lion; by default, it’s triggered by pressing the Function button on your keyboard twice, though you can change that.

Dictation & Speech

If you haven’t already enabled dictation here, do so. Also check off the Use Enhanced Dictation checkbox, which allows said dictation to work even when your Mac is offline. (OS X has to download extra data to make that work, so you may need a gigabyte or two of free space.) That’s useful in general, but for our purposes, it’s a necessity.

Step 2: Enable Dictation Commands

Accessibility

Next, we’ll take a trip to the Accessibility pane. Scroll down all the way to the bottom and select Dictation. You’ll see a few different options here, but the key is to check the box next to “Enable the dictation keyword phrase.” That will make your Mac perk up and respond to any commands prefaced with a particular word or set of words that you choose. (Tempting as it might be to use “Hey Siri,” keep in mind that you might end up accidentally triggering your iOS devices.)

If you prefer auditory feedback when your phrase is recognized, there’s an option for that, but it doesn’t appear you can change which sound it uses.

Step 3: Take a look at what you can say

OS X’s Dictation Commands are pretty powerful, if not quite as savvy as Siri. The main ingredient that’s lacking is Siri’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities—the “intelligent” part of “intelligent agent.” That allows Siri to parse your speech much like a person might, so you don’t have to always say your command the exact same way; your Mac, on the other hand, is like speaking to an extremely literal person who only understands a limited number of phrases.

But those phrases are wide and varied. Click on the Dictation Commands to get a searchable list, and select any of the commands to see what alternative phrasings you can use. (This list is also accessible by saying “Show commands” or “Show me what to say” as well as via the microphone icon that appears in the menu bar.)

Dictation Commands

That isn’t all either. Down at the bottom of that Dictation Commands window is a checkbox labeled “Enable advanced commands.” Check that off and you’ll see even more options for dictation commands, allowing you to switch apps, open documents, interact with menus, and way, way more.

Advanced Dictation Commands

My personal favorite is the “Search Spotlight for <phrase>” command; thanks to Spotlight’s new capabilities in El Capitan, you can use that to display the weather, sports scores, stock prices, and more.

Step 4: Create your own commands

But the best is yet to come. If there isn’t already a Dictation Command for something you do frequently, you can make your very own using Automator.

Just open up Automator from your Mac’s Applications folder, create a new document, and select Dictation Command. You’ll be prompted to enter a phrase to trigger the command; then you can assemble exactly what happens using the actions Automator provides, as well as anything you can dream up in AppleScript or shell scripting.

Dictation in Automator

For example, I made a simple script to speak the time when I asked. Here’s how: Launch Automator, create a new Dictation Command, add the action ‘Run Shell Script’ to your workflow and in its text box, paste this string:

say -v Daniel -r 250 "At the tone the time will be" `date +%l:%M" "%p`;afplay /System/Library/Sounds/Glass.aiff

Then save it and make sure that it’s enabled in the advanced commands section of Dictation Commands mentioned in Step 3. (Depending on your application security settings, you may have to tell OS X it’s okay to run this program the first time it’s triggered.)

Waiting for Siri

If anything, though, Dictation Commands may simply whet your appetite for Siri on the Mac. The built-in OS X capabilities not only lack the intelligence of Apple’s virtual assistant, but also anything resembling a personality. There are no snappy quips here, no suggestions to help you hone in on exactly what to ask for, and having a voice read anything more complicated than the time is pretty tricky. But if you too have always wanted a Mac that responds to your voice, here’s one way to go about it.

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]