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Hands on with Voice Dream's ebook narration

Erica Sadun, @ericasadun
September 2, 2014
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As the school year heads back into session, many students have a lot of new reading on their plate. Parents whose children struggle with assigned books might be considering ways to augment that material.

Over the summer, Amazon regularly offered to add Audible narrations to assigned reading titles for my kids. For example, I purchased E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime for US$9.99 (pre-tax) and picked up its companion audio track for just $4.99. The normal price is $9.95 on iTunes. The audio cassettes, incidentally, sell from $138.45, not including shipping. I needed to lend her my iPad 2 to access the Kindle app/voice integration (it is not available for releases that run on the original iPad), but on the whole it was a successful experiment.

With that experience in mind, I decided to investigate more automated solutions. Voice Dream Reader ($9.99, additional voices available with in-app purchases) represents one of the better-reviewed text-to-speech apps currently available in the App Store. I obtained a promo copy and tested out excerpts from several books.

At the suggestion of the developer, I tried both the default built-in voice and a purchased upgrade, the $4.99 Salli voice from Ivona. The upgraded voice was clearly superior to the default, with better intonation and inflection. And yet, despite that, each of the testers had difficulty listening to long-form reading material. No matter how excellent the synthesis, a lack of human performance really impacted the comprehension and enjoyment of text.

I suspect this is a learning process, and one that our short testing framework could not accommodate, as visually impaired readers do quite well with synthesized material. However, for augmenting reading for learning, my real-world trials had me more focused on the synthesis of the speech than its content. My testers agreed. For them, the mechanical dictation became a distraction rather than a supplement.

I found the app very well made. It easily imported the non-DRM ebooks I downloaded from Safari and added through Dropbox integration. Support for each book's table of contents made it simple to navigate to the portion I wanted to read, and word-by-word highlighting helped reinforce the content / audio integration.

I suspect Voice Dream would work best for short material and for those who have trained themselves to efficiently process automated speech. As for my commute and my children's reading, the Audible tracks remain the winners, but I'm glad I was able to give the app a good try. For those who can best take advantage of automated text-to-voice, it seems to offer a solid choice.

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