I remember, a while ago I admit, the first time I heard computer generated speech. I think it was an early version of the text to speech generator which everyone immediately associates with Professor Stephen Hawking, the guy who invented time. Though it was novel at the time, unless you were in dire need of something which could communicate verbally on your behalf, the practical applications were somewhat limited.
Thankfully, things have progressed somewhat, and with the increased power today, it’s now possible to use computers to communicate the spoken word in more, natural tones, and Natural Reader 7 is a text-to-speech program, which attempts to do exactly that.
The program interface consists of a main window into which text can be pasted and spoken by the program. As you can imagine, the controls are relatively few, similar to a media player with Play, Stop, Forward and Backward buttons. There’s also a prominently positioned Mp3 button, which will save the speech to an mp3 file, for playback without having to run the program at all, or on a computer which doesn’t have the program installed.
You can, also, change the speed of playback, which, in practice, takes a little time to activate before you notice the change; should you have acquired additional voices, and prefer a male to a female voice, such can also be changed.
There is also a “Miniboard” button, which minimizes the interface window to just the playback/Mp3 buttons, maximise and voice/speed options. Any text that is highlight in, say, this window (I’m using Open Office Writer, but it also worked fine with Notepad), is copied to the program and spoken immediately. There is a small text window beneath the buttons should I wish to see (but not edit), the text being spoken.
The program options allow you to choose the default reading voice, speed and quality etc, set up hotkeys and integrate the program into MS Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook (Professional and Enterprise editions).
So, is it any good? Well, yes and no.
Though it does do what it says, that is read text aloud, I admit I was expecting the speech to be a little more natural than it actually was. Don’t get me wrong, it was infinitely better than the last time I looked at something like this, but it wasn’t what I thought I was going to hear.
Part of the problem is stress and intonation. Natural speech includes variations in speed, whereby unimportant, unstressed words are spoken quietly, and quickly if necessary, in order to maintain the natural rhythm, with stressed words spoken on the beat as it were. Unfortunately, while it appears that individual words are pronounced quite clearly, when they are spoken in a sentence it becomes quite difficult to follow, as important words aren’t stressed as they would be when spoken by a native speaker, and the rhythm of speech isn’t there. Imagine listening to that monotone friend we all know for any length of time and you’ll know what I mean.
I have to conclude with the opinion that, should, perhaps, you have poor eyesight, or you want to listen to relatively short passages, this is something you should consider, with reserved expectations. If, however, you’re looking for a program which will read a novel to you, with all the natural expression and emotion you would want to hear whilst listening to such, you’ll be disappointed.
On a final, positive note, this program continues to be developed and, hopefully, a way will be developed to include stress and intonation, which would make it much more “listenable to”.