Listening to your documents

One of my friends (Simon) who doesn’t have a blog sent me this article which I though would be a really great post on using text to speech software….

For those of us who spend more than half an hour driving to work each day you may have sometimes wondered whether there was something more constructive you could be doing with your time, especially when you are busy. Text to Speech (TTS) is software which will ‘read’ the text in a document, webpage or e-mail. Text can then be listened to either ‘live’ or recorded to an audio file. The option to save text as an audio file then means that you can record a number of documents to listen to in the car or whilst out walking. Personally I use a package called Alive Text to Speech to record text to an MP3 file, I then transfer the file to my HP iPAQ organiser. Given the pitiful 64Mb of memory in it, I have purchased a 500Mb SD memory card for a mere £30. This will hold quite a lot of audio. To play it in the car I plug a tape to CD converter (it looks like an audio tape with a wire and jack coming out of it ) into the audio jack of the iPAQ. For those people with no tape player in the car the option would be to put the audio files on CD. Although many older CD players will not play CDs recorded on a PC. BMW have now introduced an iPod port on their 100 Series which is a great idea. I’m sure we will see more of this as MP3 players and portable DVD players are very popular.

As well as using text to speech to read documents whilst driving, I also use it to read large documents. When you have been working on a document for sometime you develop ‘word blindness’ for what you have written, having read it so many times. You read what you think it says rather than what it actually says. Using text to speech you can listen to the document as it actually is and quickly spot errors or poor use of English.

I found Alive Text to Speech to be one of the better products. You can try out a fully functioning copy for 30 days. It was only about £15 to purchase. It has a toolbar for Internet Explorer which will read webpages and record then to a file. Or you can use the full tool. This enables you to convert one or a series of text files to audio. Or you can convert what ever text you copy to the Windows clipboard. I found that the Microsoft voices (Microsoft Mary, Mike and Sam ) that come with Windows XP are not the best. Download the LH (Lernout & Hauspie) Michelle and Michael voices. These sound better and will read better. You will need to try it to understand what I mean. Get each voice to read the same text and see how differently the interpret it.

Windows XP does come with a text to speech capability on the Language toolbar. The limitations of this are that you can’t easily record to an audio file. And when it reads a Word document, for example, it only reads a screen full of text and then stops. So you have to keep scrolling down and restarting.

There are some general limitations in text to speech. For example, when it reads ‘e-mail’ the ‘e’ is pronounced as it would be when you read it. But when it reads ’email’ the ‘e’ is merged with the ‘mail’ to create a new word. Another problem is titles with no full stops. These are then merged with the following sentence. The text to speech tool interprets a full stop as a pause, without a full stop it just carries on even if there was a carriage return. This all sounds a bit trivial, but if you are listening to text that you have not seen, all of these quirks can make the text hard to follow. Acronyms are another pitfall. Some are spelt out, others are made up into a new work. This is one of the bad points of the Microsoft voices. After listening to a book in which there was ‘eTeams’, ‘eBusiness’, ‘eWorking’, etc. I came up with the idea of running a series of Find and Replaces in Word prior to the recording (I often copy text to Word before conversion to perform a bit of tidying up). I also add full stops to the title to add a pause before the next sentence.

Converting text to an audio file is not ideal because a small amount of text quickly creates megabytes of audio file (although you can tweak the audio quality settings). What would be better would be to have the text to speech software on the iPAQ and transfer the relatively small text files to the iPAQ. I did find a product for Pocket Windows called Fonix iSpeak for Pocket PC. The trail version available did not work with Pocket PC 2002, so I have not yet tried out this idea. There may be better tools and better ways of doing all this. I’m open to suggestions. This is what I have found works for me so far.

We are now seeing the rise of downloadable audio formats on websites doing Podcasts. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk) now provide past radio programmes in MP3 format. Books 24×7 (www.books24x7.com) have started providing an MP3 format option. Other sites such as IT Conversations, which I was recently introduced to, specialise in downloadable MP3 articles. As broadband Internet access from home increases so will the provision of information in ‘fatter’ data formats such as audio and video. The advent of 40Gb PMP (Portable Media Players) (e.g. http://www.iriveramerica.com/prod/multi/pmp_140.aspx) means that we have a very different portable future ahead of us.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

1 Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just googled text, speech, ipaq, and came up to your blog. Cool ideas for continuing to expand the usefulness of my ipaq. thanks for the article and the links!

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