July 2, 2007
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 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 and Browsealoud 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?
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.
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 ?
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.
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:
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 (and no, I'm not on commission).
March 31, 2007
Revish & redefining success
Revish was launched yesterday, pretty much on schedule. Everything went smoothly, and so far the feedback has been largely positive, with some consensus emerging about the most beneficial improvements that need to be made.
If you enjoy reading and haven't signed up yet you should try it out - it's certainly not to everyone's taste but there's already a fairly diverse user base busy adding books to their lists and the occasional review.
Two questions about Revish that I've been asked repeatedly over the past week or so are "how is it going to make money?", and "how will you know if it's a success?". Both interesting questions, and in many of the questioners' minds they appear to be linked.
Let's deal with the money thing first. It seems that the phrases "social network" and "web 2.0" can't be uttered without someone getting excited about Round A funding (whatever that is), entrepreneurship and angel investment. So my bad for occasionally describing Revish in those terms without considering the consequences.
Fact is Revish was not created to make money. It was created because I wanted somewhere to record what I was reading, and I didn't get along with any of the existing book sites out there. It cost next to nothing to setup other than my time (please see the next answer before jumping on that one), a nice dedicated server from the awesome folk at LiquidWeb (which will be used for many more Champion IS projects), and a licence from OCLC for xISBN (because LibraryThing decided Revish was competition, so I can't use thingISBN, which is a shame because it's got much better coverage than xIBSN).
Which leads nicely to the second question. If the objective of Revish isn't to make money, how will I know if it's a success? Simple - it already is a success for me. Why? Because I've learned a huge amount while developing the site. Some of this learning has been technical, some business, some human, but by getting out there, moving out of my comfort zone and doing something that has expanded my horizons I've already realised an awesome return on those hours I've put in. You can't buy training that delivers experience like that. The fact that a lot of people seem to like the site is a real bonus, I get a buzz from creating something that people are using.
I've also picked up a lot of excellent advice along the way, which I'll be passing on to anyone coming along to Refresh Edinburgh next week. None of it is my advice, I've just benefitted from it - on the shoulders of giants and all that.
The one piece of advice I do feel qualified to pass on is this - if you've got an idea for a product, be it a website or anything else for that matter, do something about it. Take that first small step. Fear of failure can be crippling, but treat it as an opportunity to learn and you can only succeed.
October 21, 2006
Just a quick note to say that the Revish blog is now online.
I'll be posting very occasionally here about Revish, but for the detailed low-down on the site please head over to blog.revish.com .