Voice Dream: a wonderful app for reading
I like to read. I like to read all sorts of things. Books, blogs, articles, poems, reviews, crazed manifestos, you name it, I am probably willing to at least give it a look.
However, I do not read nearly as much as I used to when I was younger, because I have trouble focusing on the words for any particular amount of time. It only recently occurred to me that I could be suffering from an undiagnosed mild dyslexia. That, in combination with my degrading attention span, could account for quite a bit of this.
I found myself getting frustrated by my inability to consume the writing that I wanted to read. More of my time was spent trying to get myself to read the stuff than actually doing it. This is why I started looking into TTS programs, or Text To Speech, for the uninitiated. TTS uses a given voice engine to read selected text aloud.
I found voice engines that really worked for me in this process but it turns out that buying these voices is not such a simple matter. There are a few PC-based solutions but I have found that I do most of my article reading on my iPad anyway. That is why Voice Dream has proven itself to be so worthy of its title.
Voice Dream is available for iOS devices (iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad). It uses these excellent voice engines from a few different companies (Acapela, NeoSpeech, and Ivona) as well as giving access to the built-in TTS engine inherent to iOS 7. That means you have plenty of options for finding the right voice for your needs. The voice engines are priced at a very reasonable two to five dollars (depending on the company of origin), while the iOS voices are used free of charge. That’s right, if you have always dreamed of Siri reading you a bedtime story, this is your chance.
The voices, once installed, are also highly mutable in terms of pitch and speed. You can set defaults, which will be applied to any new document you open, and then deviate from the defaults with regard to a specific document. Any changes to the settings will be preserved in that document, as will your current position. It’s really handy to not have to keep switching voices for different documents. The app comes with a female voice from Acapela (a perfectly serviceable one at that), and I purchased a male voice from NeoSpeech. Different documents call for different voices, at least if you’re picky like me. (I tend to try and read blogs and articles, for example, with a voice matching the gender of the writer. Maybe this is silly, but it works well for my purposes.)
If that were all Voice Dream did, it would be cool, but not quite as helpful as it could be. The voice engines are not perfect, and cannot always anticipate special word pronunciations, especially names. Voice Dream has a pronunciation dictionary, however, that is totally open to user configuration. If I find I am running into a word mispronounced too many times, it is a simple process to tell the app how I would like it to say a certain word. (You can also have the app skip certain words, characters, phrases, etc., which is helpful when the app is reading from a PDF. Did I mention it will read from a PDF?)
Finally, Voice Dream makes the reading process much much MUCH easier for people like me by highlighting the words spoken as it moves through the document. Because of this, I am able to keep my focus on what I am reading. My guess is that this increases my comprehension and retention of the material. This makes me wish I had had this in school, where my tendency toward an auditory learning style made it difficult for me to absorb the information in textbooks. To assist matters further, the focused reading mode will show 1, 3, or 5 lines of text at a time so that the eye cannot wander too far from the current text.
It may sound like hyperbole to say that this is the best app on the App Store, but it is not hyperbole to say that this is an extraordinarily helpful app for people like me. We should support developers who work hard to make reading accessible to those who have trouble with it (I mean, the app even has a built-in dyslexic friendly font!).
On a professional level, I have also started using the app to assist me in my editing process. Reading your work aloud is just about essential to good editing, but I do not always feel up to the task. Piping the story through Voice Dream helps me suss out the flow, and catch where things are a little awkward or paced wrong. The voice engine does not match a human voice, but it does a fine job of engaging your other sense when trying to find errors in your work. (Especially grammar errors. When narrated, these jump out at me, screaming and threatening to destroy the realm.)
Just for full disclosure, I did in fact email the developer and ask that the “Will Bad Guy” emotive voice engine from Acapela be included in the app. That voice is great for reading creepy stories. I received a prompt reply (a few months ago, shortly after sending my message) saying that it might be done. Really hoping it does happen!
One last thing that the app does really well: integration into various services for your convenient article/story/whatever acquisition. Connect your Dropbox or Google Drive, and the app will download any relevant files that you choose. Log in with bookmarking services Pocket or Instapaper to have your saved pages sync and automatically download. You can even get books from Gutenberg, or use the browser to grab the relevant text from a webpage. (This mostly only works for pages that are formatted in a certain way, but that is becoming more and more common on the web. Try it on this page, it will work!)
Okay. So I have waxed semi-philosophical about why I like the app. Now let’s get down to business.
Voice Dream is normally $10, which is a fair price for the service you get for your dollar.
Up through September 7th, 2014, it is on sale for $5. That is an incredible deal, well worth consideration.
If you are not sure but want to check it out, try Voice Dream Lite for free. It works the exact same except that it will only read about 300 characters at a time. Unless you have an exceptionally long sentence, the lite version tends to stop at the ends of sentences. You can then double tap the next word to keep it going. I used the lite version like this for a while while waiting to be able to afford the full version.
Voice Dream is worth a look, and there’s a good chance you know someone who would benefit from it. (This is seriously so good that I will keep some sort of iOS device in my life to keep having access to it, even if my brand ‘loyalties’ shift away.)
For those who primarily do their article reading in a civilized way, on the desktop computer with a web browser, I did recently find a Chrome plug-in that is pretty nice for TTS.
SpeakIt! takes highlighted text and runs it through their competent TTS engine, speaking it aloud right in the browser window. It is not perfect, and the slight pauses as it loads the next piece of spoken text can be a little jarring, but it is great for when I’m reading on my computer. And it’s great for being free. So go check it out!
That about covers it for this edition of Stoffel Blathers On About Stuff. Tune in next time to read (or hear?) me blather on about the Muffin v. Cupcake debate: is there really a difference?