Text to speech tools

Ideal for the visually impaired or people who have tired eyes from staring at monitors or reading large documents, text to speech (TTS) tools let your computer read aloud to you. While computer-synthesised voices are still a long way from perfect human mimicry, it's really not that hard to, for example, have your computer read a document to you while you're cooking.

TextAloud MP3

With TextAloud MP3 (included on this month's cover discs), your computer can read out text and also save the recital as either a WAV or an MP3 file. You could then transfer the MP3 file to a personal MP3 player to listen to on the go.

Install and open TextAloud, select Run Free Trial and close the "tip of the day" box. TextAloud sits in the background until you have selected a body of text and chosen 'copy' to send it to the Windows clipboard: you can do this by highlighting some text from your Web browser or a document and pressing -C. When TextAloud becomes active and asks if you wish to copy the clipboard to the speech buffer, select New. To hear the text spoken, click the Aloud toolbar button (it has a speaker icon).

Text Aloud is also great for collating multiple bits of copied information from Web pages and e-mails. Click the Multi toolbar button to put TextAloud in multi-article mode. Select an e-mail, highlight the text, and press -C to copy it. When Text Aloud becomes active and asks if you wish to copy the clipboard to the speech buffer, select New as before, or select Append if you want to add this copied text to an existing body of text (article). You can choose to have each article rendered as a combined or separate MP3 or WAV file. Text files can also be opened by pressing -O.

Rendering to WAV or MP3

The File Options tab on the right of the program is where you can choose to render (save) the spoken text as WAV or MP3, and specify where you'd like to save it and as which quality. While WAV rendering is locked at 22.05KHz (fairly low quality), MP3s can be rendered at up to 128Kbps 48KHz stereo. MP3s are probably the best option, as they require far less hard disk space. To render your spoken text, simply select an article and press the File toolbar button. Before you render, make sure you have entered a title for your file in the title field of your text.

Computer voices

The Text Aloud trial features only one voice, but you can change its speed and pitch by right-clicking on the voices pull-down menu located above each article in TextAloud and selecting Edit Selected Voice. A total of 27 voices in seven languages is available for free download - just follow the Web link from the Engine/Voices tab. New voices will be selectable from the Voice drop-down list box found above each article in TextAloud.

Project Gutenberg

At this long-established Internet project, volunteers turn public domain paper books into what's been termed 'e-text', i.e., a computer text file. From the US-based project's home page (www.gutenberg.net) you can download over 5000 copyright-free works, ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Shakespeare to The Bible. As a general rule of thumb, under US copyright laws any books last published before 1923 are suitable for the US Project Gutenberg. Under Australian copyright laws, however, works are protected only for the life of the author plus 50 years from the end of the year of the author's death. As The Project Gutenberg of Australia home page (www.gutenberg.net.au) further explains, the works are likely to remain copyrighted in other countries. From The Project Gutenberg of Australia you can find a large list of works by Australians or about Australia.

Microsoft murmurs

Windows 2000 and Windows XP have limited built-in text to speech capabilities. In Windows XP, go to Start-All Programs-Accessories-Accessibility and select Narrator. Press OK to continue past the first screen and you will be able to choose to have Narrator read out on-screen events as well as typed characters. To change the voice settings, click the Voice button. Microsoft's own e-book reader software available with plug-in text to speech capabilities is available at www.microsoft.com/reader.

Finally, Microsoft Agents (www.microsoft.com/msagent) are cute little animated characters that programs use to liven up things by using speech synthesis to talk to you. Web sites like www.agentry.net list hundreds of differently styled Agents for download, as well as a range of software that makes use of Microsoft Agents for uses such as reading aloud your Instant Messenger (such as ICQ, AIM or MSN) messages.

If you're interested in further exploring TTS, take a look at the Bell Labs' site at www.bell-labs.com/project/tts. There's also Appen's Australian-accented text to speech synthesis, located at www.appen.com.au/demo.asp.

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