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Hearing voices

The applications for vision-disabled users are obvious, but other uses perhaps less so.

Few people realize it, but the concept of text-to-speech (TTS) programs goes all the way back to 1939, when physicist Homer Dudley first introduced a marvelous device known as the Voder (later refined as the Vocoder) at the New York World’s Fair.

Yes, the machine was crude (go to > 120_years/machines/vocoder< to hear the original radio broadcast of the event), and the voice sounded like that of a robot, but Dudley's innovation started the ball rolling and, eventually, those who came after built upon and improved the concept.

TTS has come a long way in the last 65 years, though you can still usually tell that what you’re hearing comes from a machine rather than a human. Yet, a lot of companies have made great strides, and there are some amazing software packages out there for the Windows PC, most of which conform to Microsoft’s Speech Application Programming Interface (SAPI) standard and use “Mike” and “Mary,” the free voices that Microsoft has developed for use with the standard.

So what are these programs used for? The applications for vision-disabled users are obvious, but other uses perhaps less so; reading e-mail, online news sites, and proofing documents for readability are all tasks that could benefit from having your PC talk to you. A lot of users also use the software to create files to listen to on portable devices such as PocketPCs and CD players while working out, hiking, or driving.


There exists a multitude of commercial and shareware TTS packages for the Windows PC, one of the easiest to use and most versatile being NextUp’s TextAloud >

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