Screen Reader for the Sighted

O’Reilly blog entries [example] now feature a small “Listen” icon to the right of each article. Clicking it causes a widget to start reading the page to you in a very smooth/natural synthesized voice. This is all real-time — it’s not like they’re having someone read and record every article on the site. A company called ReadSpeaker provides the software that makes this possible.

The obvious application is for non-sighted users. But wait – blind users already have screen readers set up, or they wouldn’t be using the web to begin with. So who is this for? Sighted users who want to close their eyes for a few minutes? That seems like a very limited application.

While pondering this, it hit me: ReadSpeaker’s widget only works on specially enabled web sites. Imagine a FireFox plugin or browser extension that, when clicked, would run the text of any page through a voice synthesizer like the one O’Reilly is using, but pipe the output silently to MP3 in the background, then load the generated file into my podcast aggregator. All day long I could “tag for voice” various web pages that I wished I had the time to read. When I sync’d my iPod before leaving for work, I’d have all that missed content on it, ready for the road.

Yes, Young Edisons, this is a business opportunity. Run with it.

Update: MacDevCenter blogger David Battino sampled the audio output of an entry and mashed it up into a little song. Says MP3 output is on the way from ReadSpeaker.

Music: Sufjan Stevens :: Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder version)

3 Replies to “Screen Reader for the Sighted”

  1. Nice thoughts Scot. But just a couple of points here:
    1. The main user group for service like this is people with reading difficulties, dyslexia. Somewere around 10% of the population have such difficulties. But people with other first language than the native one are also helped by hearing the words in the same time they read it. But as you already figured is that this could be a great help to anyone.
    2. A voice synthesizer with the quality like the one O’Reilly is using is not for free (like the built-in synthesizer that have been integrated in Mac for a long time and like “Microsoft Sam”). A desktop license is expensive and a server license cost a fortune.
    3. A general browser plug-in is good for some purposes. But a website-based can be improved in pronouncing for that specific website. A parabel: A customer can of course bring their own plastic fork and knife to any restaurant. But if you going to have a good steak at a nice restaurant I think you would prefere their tools to eat it. And a decent restaurant should offer the best tools possible. “The nicer restaurant, the nicer fork” so to say. (a very unknown saying ;-)

    BTW: Cool picture with the basebal-kid (Image from nowere). It look like they will smack the head of the other kid, regarding the distance between them.

  2. It is true what Frans say. But also I think there are reason to include all the people that, regardless of why, rather listen then read. What I have tried to make is a “device independent solution” where anyone can listen to web pages/blog posts instead of reading them. (well, sometime is listen the only way of reading).

    We will soon, together with the Oreilly people, launch podcast versions of their blogs as well. That would mean that the blog can be listened to from any kind of web browsing and mp3 capable device. (like from any mobile phone for instance). Well, The phone probably need a mobile screen reader in order to make it fully accessible for perople that are blind or visually imparied, but anyway.

    Founder of ReadSpeaker

  3. Thanks for the notes Frans and Niclas, looking forward to seeing the additions to the O’Reilly blogs. I understand what you’re saying about this technology not being free, but I think that could ultimately be overcome and perfected by the open source community (if it’s not addresssed by the commercial software world), at which point I hope to see a general-purpose / all-site browser plugin in the future.

    Anyway, great technology – congrats.

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