For several decades people who are visually impaired have used text-to-speech (TTS) software to access electronic text documents. Synthesized speech has evolved and improved markedlyover the years, and its use has spread to the point that, these days, you'll hear it chattering away everywhere from flight announcements at the airport to a host of apps designed to give sighted tablet and smartphone users the ability to multitask or take a break from eye strain.
In this article we'll take an in-depth look at a self-voicing app foriOS devices the called Voice Dream Reader. This mainstream app has been aptly described as a Swiss Army knife for opening and reading aloud a wide variety of file formats, ranging from PDF files to PowerPoint presentations. It also does an excellent job organizing and voicing Microsoft WordDOC and DOCX files, web articles, and various e-book formats, including works from Project Gutenberg and Bookshare.
Voice Dream Reader costs $9.99 in the US App Store and comes standard with the Acapela Heather voice. It is compatible with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch and requires iOS 5 or later. During the brief setup process, you're taken to the Voice Store where you can sample and purchase other Acapela and NeoSpeech voices for $1.99 and $2.99,respectively. There are 78 voices in 20 languages to choose from.
You can also try out the app before you buy it with the Voice Dream Reader Lite app. This free version is nearly complete with all of the features, but it will only read the first 300 characters of any book or document.
The app interface is extremely speech friendly. All of the buttons are labeled, and there are several features and controls specifically for VoiceOver users. Four features (full-screen reading mode, text highlighting, dictionary lookups, and the ability to create and embed notes) do not currently work with VoiceOver, but the developeris actively working on changing that.
The home screen contains the Documents list and comes preloaded with three files: Welcome, Help, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Each title is followed by an approximate total listening time, which is updated whenever you change the voice or voice speed.
When you double tap any title, the reading pane will appear. Near the middle of this screen you'll find a text box containing the first few lines of text of the selected title. At thetop and bottom of the box are a number of button controls. The "Play" button is located at the center of the screen about three-quarters of the way down. Double tapping this button will begin to voice the document. To pause the document, tap the button again. You can use VoiceOver to find this or any other control without interrupting the reading, but once your document starts voicing, you can also use the familiar two-finger double tap to stop and restart listening.
Double tapping the "Home" button at the top left of the screen saves your place, closes the active document, and returns you to themain screen. The next time you open the document, reading will pick up right where you left off.
More Documents, Please
Voice Dream Reader can access a wide range of document types, including:
- Plain text (TXT)
- Rich Text Format (RTF)
- Microsoft Word (DOC and DOCX)
- Microsoft PowerPoint (PPT and PPTX)
- Portable Document Format (PDF)
- Apple Pages (PAGE)
- Apple Keynote (KEY)
- Web (HTM and HTML)
- eBook (ePUB)
To add files to Voice Dream Reader, use the "Add" button on the home screen. There you are presented with several options:
Cut and Paste
The "Clipboard" option in the Add menu turns the contents of your clipboard into a readable document. It will show up in your Documents list as "Untitled," but if you open the file and double tap the "Edit" button, you can name the file and even add text to it. The "Edit" button in the Add menu is a great way to build your own document via multiple cutand pastes and a bit of touch typing.
Share or "Open With"
Many iOS apps that create text offer the option to share a document with another app. Double tap the "Tools" button in Pages, and you'll be given the chance to send the current document to a number of other apps, including Voice Dream Reader. You can also use the double-tap-and-hold gesture onan attachment you receive in an e-mail and send the document directly to the app for voicing and file management.
Voice Dream Reader includes an embeddedbrowser that you can use to open webpages. The "Smart Save" option transforms the page into a Voice Dream Reader accessible document. The app tries to remove as many ads as possible. In my testing it did a fairly good job, but it takes several steps to save a page whereas Safari Reader will do the same (or better) with a single double-tap.
More Ways to Add Files
Use the home screen Settings menu to log into your Bookshare account and download books directly into Voice Dream reader. You'll get the same search, browse, and book summary information that's available in Bookshare's Read2Go app. The same is true for the Project Gutenberg option except that Gutenberg does not require a log-in name and password. Unfortunately, due to Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection, you cannot use Voice Dream Reader to open books from the iBook, Kindle, or Nook bookstores.
The reading pane offers a number of VoiceOver-friendly navigation controls. You can see how much reading time has elapsed and how much remains. You can also monitor percent completed and quickly navigate through the book with one-finger swipes upward on the percent slider or by entering a number in the adjacent edit box. Additionally, if your document has page markers, you can use the "Page" control to navigate directly to any page.
The "Fast Forward" and "Rewind" buttons are user-definable. Double tap the "Navigation Unit" control at the extreme lower right of the screen, and you can set these buttons to advance by sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, bookmark, highlighted text, or 15-, 30-, or 60-second intervals. You can also double-tap-and-hold either the "Fast Forward" or "Rewind" button to call up the same options.
Unfortunately, the two-finger swipe left and right gestures,which usually move you quickly through the text, are hijacked by VoiceOver, so you'll have to find and use the buttons. If you're using headphones, you can use the Settings control found on the home screen to set the double and triple press of the "Play/Stop" button to move back and forth by the designated unit. As is the case when you are playing music, you can use these controls even when the device is locked, which allowed me to easily listen to a large PDF file while walking my dogs. Setting the navigation to advance by paragraph also enabled me to quickly skip the annoying header information repeated at the top of each page. (Note: These remote controls are not enabled in the Voice Dream Reader Lite version.)
Along with creating a VoiceOver-friendly gesture to move forward and backward, my wish list for this app also includes the ability to set the "Fast Forward" and "Rewind" navigation units separately. When I want to skip ahead, it's usually by paragraph or page, when I want to rewind it's usually to replay the last sentence or two.
The "Previous" and "Next" buttons near the top of the reading pane move you from one file to the next. By default Voice Dream Reader moves one by one up and down the titles in your main list. However, you can add titles to the playlist folders and arrange them in any order you like.
Bookmarks and Searching
The "Add Bookmark" button does just that. Press the button labeled "Bookmarks" to call up a list of your place settings. The app presents each with a bit of identifying textand the percent marker along with a "Play" button to start reading at that point. If your document is structured with chapters, you can also navigate quickly ahead and back. Additionally, the Bookmarks pane also includes an option to navigate by highlighted text, but as mentioned, it is currently not possible to create highlights using VoiceOver.The "Search" button also presents results with text, a percent marker, and a "Play" button. The "Play/Pause" button also doubles as a sleep timer. Double tap and hold to call up the various settings.
Editing and Sharing
The "Editor" option allows you to add and remove text from documents small enough to fit in your device's memory. After you save your changes, they will appear in your document from then on. You can also translate a document via Google Translate, which is free on the Google website, but to do this from within the app, you need to purchase credits because Google charges developers for this service.
The "Action" button allows you to share the title of the e-book or other documents you are reading via Twitter or text message. The "Export" option lets you e-mail the text (subject to length restrictions) or send the text to an iDevice-ready printer, your clipboard, other apps on your device,or to an external source, such as your DropBox account.
With these features I was easily able to import a PDF file, make changes and additions, save my revisions, print the document, and e-mail it as a TXT attachment. This could be an excellent solution for students who want to take and turn in a test during class with a Word document or PDF file using their iPad or iPhone (with or without a Bluetooth keyboard).
In Voice Settings you'll find the Voice Store where you can purchase additional TTS engines in English and other dialects and languages. I purchased a German voice, and when I opened a German language document, Voice Dream Reader began speaking with the correct voice. A mixed language document did not fare so well. When the text changed from English to German, I had to use the Voice Settings to switch voices manually.
You can change the language at any time along with the speed, pitch, and volume. Each document is automatically associated with the voice you use, so I was able to use an amped-up Acapela Heather voice to breeze through a light mystery novel and a slowed-down Acapela Will for some Excel documentation. I could flip back and forth between the two without having to fiddle with voice controls.
Each language also includes its own pronunciation dictionary into which you can enter exceptions and phonetic pronunciations. Technologically sophisticated users will be pleased to note that the app supports regex search strings.
Voice Dream Reader also offers several features of interest to partially sighted and reading disabled users. It works with Zoom, but after you learn the layout, you may wish to turn off magnification while using the app because the Text Settings menu offers eight font choices, including Open Dyslexic, in sizes from 10 to 40 points. You can select custom foreground, background, and highlighting colors. There are also options to have the current line and/or word highlighted in the color of your choice.
A single tap toggles the text window from partial to full screen mode with all controls hidden for undistracted reading. The tap-and-hold gesture calls up a context menu that allows you to highlight and copy a block of text, look up a word in the dictionary, create a bookmark or a note, or add a new pronunciation on the fly.
Zoom users who don't wish to have the app speak the text can still benefit from Voice Dream Reader. Do a two finger pinch inward from any direction, and the text window will shrink all the way down to a single line. Use the Voice Settings menu to slow the voice and set the volume to zero, and voilà, you get a document that displays one line at a time in your choice of font and font size and that scrolls automatically at an adjustable speed.
The Bottom Line
At half the price of Read2Go,Voice Dream Reader is an absolute must buy for new users of Bookshare who want to download and read books on their iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Even seasoned Bookshare users will enjoy the larger set of features. For me, the ability to set different voices and reading speeds to start automatically with different books was a delightful surprise. I also enjoyed the ability to read Word, PDF, and PowerPoint files on the go, and to keep them stored in various folders.
Zoom users and the reading disabled will also find a lot to like about this app. I envy their ability to highlight text, use the dictionary, and create embedded notes. However, considering all the work the developer has done thus far to make the app accessible, my guess is it's just a short matter of time before these features make it into the Voice Dream Reader.