ReadSpeaker - speech enabling Revish

Disclosure: This is a sponsored review, I got a free licence for ReadSpeaker SayIt for Revish in return for writing this review. ReadSpeaker have had no influence on the tone or content of this review.

Early on in the development of Revish (external link) I had the idea that offering the option to listen to a review would be a nice feature to have. Even better if you could download an mp3 of reviews and listen to them at your leisure, maybe on the move. At some point in the future there will be a Revish podcast, hopefully with reviews read by the users who wrote them, but what I needed in the short term was a text to speech technical solution.

There are basically two camps in the speech-enablement business: server-side and client-side, and within those camps (in the UK at least) two market leaders, ReadSpeaker (external link) and Browsealoud (external link) respectively. The fundamental difference between them is the requirement to install a plug-in for client-side processing. My preference is for as few barriers to access as possible: asking a user to download and install a specific plug-in for speech enablement just doesn't fit with my attitude to the web.

As an aside, out of curiousity I did download and install Browsealoud, but couldn't get it to work, even on the Browsealoud site. The software replaces your mouse pointer with a branded pointer, but it just displayed a red cross for me, and I couldn't get speech out of it whatever I did. This merely confirmed my decision to go with ReadSpeaker.

I contacted ReadSpeaker, explained my needs and they recommended ReadSpeaker SayIt, and even better for me offered a free licence in exchange for this review. How could I refuse?

Implementation

I duly received a welcome email, with my account details and comprehensive implementation instructions. Being a hosted solution the installation is all about determining the best approach for your site, then familiarising yourself with the many configuration options the service offers.

For Revish I opted for the ReadSpeaker Flash player, with a fallback of a straightforward text link to listen to a review should javascript not be available. This is one of the great things about the product - there are options to suit almost every technical situation, and you can use standard web development techniques to provide graded access to its functions based on the user's platform. So visitors to Revish with javascript and Flash (~85%) will get the full-fat Flash player, while the rest will get a text link which will be functional on just about any platform with a media player.

I'll also add an account option to allow registered users to choose the text link over the Flash player - on initial testing it isn't keyboard friendly.

There are some problems with the ReadSpeaker documentation - it presents a lot of configuration options, but doesn't make it clear how or where to implement them all. For example some can be set in your HTML to be processed by ReadSpeaker at runtime (for example elements to be ignored) while others require to be set by ReadSpeaker themselves at their servers (for example in my case I didn't want speech to start automatically when the page loaded, and with the Flash player I was unable to do this myself). While this is a little frustrating, the response from ReadSpeaker support was extremely quick, and consistently helpful and accurate.

Some of the technical examples have critical typos - for example a misplaced single quote resulted in me spending too much time working out why the vanilla Flash player example from the documentation wasn't working.

On a positive note ReadSpeaker have committed to improving the documentation, and correcting the errors I found. Another example of a great support ethos that seems to pervade the company.

Voice quality and features

Ultimately the most important factor in speech-enabling a website is the quality of the voice - if the service fails to produce clear, understandable output it's a complete loss.

I chose the female Scottish ReadSpeaker voice, not just because I live in Scotland and my company is based here, but because I find it easier on the ear than the standard female voice. This is a personal preference, and I'm not sufficiently familiar with the product yet to know if I will be able to offer visitors to Revish a choice of voices - it would be a nice touch. So I'm keen to hear what others think of the voice on Revish - understandable, or a bit Rab C (external link)?

Given the immense complexity of the english language it's inevitable that there will be some words, phrases and constructs that any text to speech service will struggle with, and some misuses of punctuation that a reader will understand, but that cannot be interpreted by software. In ReadSpeaker's case I am extremely impressed with the way it copes with most things thrown at it on Revish - the issues I've seen so far are limited to the use by reviewers of characters like asterisks to indicate emphasis, and ReadSpeaker reading them literally as "asterisk", and some mis-pronunciation of words, for example "thyme" being spoken with a soft "th". Once again though the company are very happy to receive feedback on these sorts of issues, and commit to make adjustments to the software to correct them.

On the whole I'm very pleased with the all-round performance - speech starts within no more than a few seconds of clicking the "play" button, and the option to download the spoken review as an mp3 file is a nice feature.

Coming soon

At the moment I haven't implemented ReadSpeaker fully into Revish - it will be later this week, but in the meantime you can see and hear how it works by appending ?rs=1 to any review, for example:

http://www.revish.com/reviews/0753821532/reynard/?rs=1 (external link)

Summary

A speech enabled website can help many people - those with low literacy skills, those with dyslexia, those with some visual impairments - and ReadSpeaker makes it incredibly easy for site owners like myself to offer that help. As with any emerging technology it's not perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement. But 'm still blown away by the way it works: people from all over the world write book reviews at Revish, and this incredibly clever software translates the diverse writing styles and vocabularies used by them into speech, over the internet.

The highest recommendation I can give is to say that ReadSpeaker will be a permanent part of Revish. As I refine the Revish implementation and learn more about the possibilities I'll post information here.

If you're interested in learning more about ReadSpeaker or buying a licence please visit their website at http://www.readspeaker.com (external link) (and no, I'm not on commission).

Comments

Wow, Dan, this is really cool. Looking forward to using it on Revish. I love the way the voice sounds like a Scottish woman.

Posted by: Dona at July 3, 2007 10:29 PM

I only just discovered Revish, but think it�s an absolutely amazing site and resource. As an English professor, I definitely plan on utilizing it, probably as soon as this upcoming semester. But the idea of adding a voice application as well really marks your site as a public service. So few web designers ever really worry about accessibility issues, but clearly the issues are at the forefront of your thinking (I also liked that you put the ease of use for your site visitors first in your design). I have a close friend who has gone slowly blind over the past 10 years. She is 94, and was a voracious reader all her life, up until the time when she lost her sight. As might be expected, she gets a lot of books on tape and CD to listen to, and there certainly are good services out there for the blind, but the more places that offer podcasts of written materials, particularly things that aren�t big enough to receive notice from these disability services, the better in my opinion.

Posted by: fragrances at July 14, 2007 4:25 AM

I am thinking of recommending the use of ReadSpeaker to someone and your review will be very useful to me, thanks.

In return, I notice that you have suddenly been hit by spam responses to this article. The blogging site I use, wordpress.com , filters all responses through something called "Akismet". I have no idea how it works, but since I set the blog up at the end of January I have received something like 20 genuine comments, and Akismet had filtered out in excess of 200 spams !!

I don't know if you could implement something similar on here, but you may find the information useful.

Posted by: Tom H at March 13, 2008 12:54 PM

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