To prepare for my interview with Susan Gerhart I tried using text-to-speech software to read menu choices and text selections aloud. As always, I experienced the reaction that Susan, in her latest post, calls synthetic voice shock.
For those of us who don’t need to rely on synthetic voices, that reaction isn’t a problem, it’s merely a deterrent to optional use of the technology. For example, though it might be convenient to shift some material from the domain of written text to the domain of audio, the unpleasantness of synthetic voices stops me from doing that.
But the real problem, Susan explains today, is that synthetic voice shock deters people who have lost their vision, and who would benefit greatly if they could adapt to those voices. Here’s how she characterizes typical reactions:
- I cannot understand that voice!!!
- The voice is so inhuman, inexpressive, robotic, unpleasant!
- How could I possibly benefit from using anything that hard to listen to?
- If that’s how the blind read, I am definitely not ready to take that step.
Conversely, those long experienced with screen readers and reading appliances may be surprised at these adverse reactions to the text-to-speech technology they listen to many hours a day.
How can we help people cross that chasm? Susan offers advice to four groups: “vision losers”, developers of assistive reading technologies, sighted people who are helping vision losers, and rehab trainers.
I’m in the third group. My mom’s macular degeneration is progressing, and although she’s not yet forced to rely on text-to-speech, that day may come. To those of us in this group, Susan recommends that, when evaluating applications and appliances, we need to bear in mind that voice quality is a separable concern, not directly tied to the capabilities of the software and hardware. And she suggests that, in order to help friends or family members, we might want to develop some familiarity with the range of available voices.
To that end, Susan has provided audio renderings of her blog posts, including four different versions of today’s post as read by Neospeech Kate, Neospeech Paul, Microsoft Mike, and Robotic UK Jane. None of the readings is pleasant to listen to. But Susan says:
I testify it takes a little patience and self-training and then you hear past these voices and your brain naturally absorbs the underlying content.
Those of us not compelled to learn how to “hear past” those voices might still want to try the experiment, in order to help friends and family members make the transition.