A Simple, Low-Cost, Effective Reading Application

Simple Reading Applications

Let’s assume you can find your way around a screen through a combination of vision, memory, keyboarding, and mousing but can’t read much of the text in documents you access. Is there a low-cost Windows application to read the text for you?

Yes, lots to choose from. Search for the phrase “text-to-speech” and you’ll find advertisements and websites for freeware, shareware, and all kinds of products at less than $100. This blog article is for beginner Vision Losers as well as those looking for alternatives to higher cost assistive technology products.

My main reader for years is TextAloud from http://www.nextup.com, which I’ll discuss as a representative of this class of desktop applications. Some use cases are:

1) In order to read a .txt file on your disk, you open the file for TextAloud to speak it to you. Ditto for .doc, .pdf, and other standard formats.

2) While browsing you find a page you can’t read in screen font form. You click the TextAloud toolbar to read the page in a voice and at a rate you choose.

3) You just do not feel like sitting straight-up with your eyeballs glued to your screen to read a long document. You copy the text to the clipboard, which TextAloud monitors for changes and then reads the text to you.

4) You want a bunch of files in audio form for an MP3 player. Open the files in TextAloud to convert to mp3 format and save in a directory for downloading.

5) You’re editing a document and want to hear how it sounds for tone, style, and mistakes. Beyond audio editing, maybe you’d like to compare male and female sounding voices to see how your writing is perceived by gender-wired brains. Open or copy the draft into TextAloud, choose voices, and listen to your writing as if being narrated.

In other words, TextAloud is a simple word processor with special features for reading the text to you or converting text to mp3 (or WAY) format to be read on another device. One piece of Windows magic is the “copy to clipboard” which transfers text to TextAloud for optional immediate reading.

And, it’s so helpful to have TextAloud right in your browser. Depending on versions and types of browsers, you can have TextAloud as a up there with Search, Favorites, History, etc.. Simply select text to read, wave your mouse over to the easily seen button, click “Speak”, and text is read, even if the desktop application is not loaded. But, wait, there’s more, a bonus zoom plus and minus to avoid a trip into the menus to change text size. As long as you can see the toolbar buttons, text-to-speech is just a click away.

Uh, oh, I’m starting to sound like a commercial here, but my point is simple: this particular product in the low-cost text-to-speech application space performs a lot of functions your vision may not be able to handle.

Really, synthetic voices are a miraculous technology that enables your brain to understand text as if human-read. Older, i.e. 1990ish voices, the ones built into Windows, sound robotic while newer voices are “natural” derived from slices of human speech. We’ll explore these more in a future posting, including fascinating studies about how our brains are socially biased in their speech wiring. Listen to sample readings on an informative and vision-friendly podcast, Allison Sheridan’s NosillaCast at http://www.podfeet.com

TextAloud can be purchased with a bundle of voices which sell individually for around $30. Yes, indeed, buy yourself a choir of male-female, old or young, American-Brit accented voices for a variety of listening experiences. Beware if you are low on GB of disk space as these voice data files are large, upwards of 200 MB to 800 MB. Get to know Kate and Paul, Mike and Crystal, Ray, Claire, Alex, and their developers at RealSpeak, NeoSpeech, ViaVoice, Microsoft, Cepstral, and the home grounds at ATT Labs.

OK, here’s the down-sides of this product. It comes with “skins” to change its look, but they are all way too bright for my photo-receptors so only the No-skin look is available, but it can be customized for font size and color. I like Ariel, size 14 or 16. White or Yellow on a Dark Blue background. Another problem is that opening a Microsoft Word file means suffering template and installation messages as Word itself is opened, and, no, I can’t take it back to the former employer I got it from .For my eyesight and keyboard skills, a drop-down box listing the currently active files is confusing and hard to use. But none of these are show-stoppers nor any worse than other products.

Other applications I’ve used with satisfaction for similar tasks, especially the “read from clipboard” function, are CoolSpeech from http://www.bytecool.com and ACE-HIGH from http://www.textreader.net/ Unfortunately, CoolSpeech ran afoul of my virus checking software and lost its clipboard functionality. This blog post isn’t a product review but here’s one Disability Professional’s product assessment from Beth Case at Disability411 podcast #YYY at URL.

As both a visually impaired user and a software developer myself, I’ve noticed one significant difference among applications in their model of handling multiple requests for readings coming from browsers and other apps copying to the clipboard TextAloud uses a Blocking model, where any request to reads is rejected until the current is done, with an accompanying beep if desired. CoolSpeech uses a sequential reading model where requests are queued and read to completion, one after another. ACE HIGH uses an Interruption model where a read may not completed with new requests starting immediately. Your satisfaction with a product may depend on how well your usage profile matches its read sequencing model.

One final note of warning is that all the voices and applications I’ve tried are easily over-loaded by multiple requests or voice changes, starting to slow down, stop, or speak at the same time, or otherwise babble. TTS isn’t perfect but works amazingly well.

So, here’s a type of desktop application, and one particular satisfied customer for one leading product that Vision Losers can consider. In our theme of “As Your World Changes”, you may find tools like this necessary and/or sufficient some days, or in some lighting situations. With a modest investment in software and voice data files, you now have a classy interface for reading on your PC or mp3 or CD players. Of course, sighted people can use these tools also, but often seem, in our terminology, to be happy with “their eyeballs glued to their screens”, or printed pages, reading the old-fashioned way. Visually impaired people are sometimes the early adopters of technologies like these and go through an evolutionary phase of learning to listen in order to survive in an information-rich world.

Check these out:

Voice samples in NoscillaCast #102 and #103 at http://www.podfeet.com. Other assistive technology information, also.

Disability Professional’s take on many low-cost assistive technology products http://disability411.jinkle.com/show23.htm

TextAloud product from http://www.nextup.com

CoolSpeech product from http://ww.bytecool.com

ACE HIGH Text-to-Speech from http://www.textreader.net.

Future blog articles: “Wired for Speech” book and studies by Stanford professor Clifford Nass; “synthetic voices all around”, co-evolving with humans; high-and-low cost screen readers; how applications speak.


Author: slger

Susan L. Gerhart (slger) is a retired computer scientist. Her professional specialities included software engineering research, technology transfer management, and computer science education, see SLGer's Research Autobiography. Susan is active in a lifelong learning institute (OLLI) at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona. She has facilitated courses on podcasts, Twitter, the Singularity, and climate fiction. "As Your World Changes" blog describes her journey with vision loss into the spectacular world of assistive technology and the frustrating practices of accessibility. She writes with the NVDA screen reader, reads books from Bookshare on a BookSense, and listens to podcasts on an iPhone. slger123 on Twitter records her favorite articles and occasional comments on life and politics. Creative writing courses led her to undertake "A Chip On Her Shoulder", a novel asking the questions: "how did we get into the privacy mess of modern social media?" and "Are we now just 'packets of data formerly known as people'?" Contact: slger123 at gmail.com

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