Small Talk: Speaking up on VoiceOver and the iPhone

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

More than twenty years ago, I was attending a MacWorld Expo during a business trip. One of my favorite distractions at these events was to hunt down any Macintosh software that used speech. Self-voicing software was rare and VoiceOver did not exist. I remember visiting with an exhibitor about their new product. I never clicked as to what the application might do for me, but the vendor promised that it would talk. Good enough. I relinquished $35 for a diskette and ran back to my hotel room to play with my new toy.

While booting my Macintosh PowerBook 170, I decided to do some multi-tasking. I called my young son, something I did every day when I was on the road. At his age, he always had plenty to share regarding the grind of First Grade. As his highlights were often similar to those from the day before, I thought I could get away with simultaneously installing my new acquisition. Bad move.

While Richard recounted his exhausting day at school, my computer began to speak. It was not Agnes, the early synthetic voice from Apple with the familiar nasal twang. It was the recorded voice of a young woman, letting me know how well the installation was progressing. She sounded very warm and sultry.

"Dad, is there a girl in your room?"

Attempting to sound very alone and guilt-free, I quickly answered, "No, that is the computer talking."

"That's not your computer," he responded. "That sounds like a girl."

An awkward pause. I then asked, "Is your mother with you?"

"Yes, and she wants to talk to you right now!"

Most of the time, I love how much my access technology jabbers. Although I am fluent with Braille, I am painfully slow at it. The spoken word is my friend. Years ago, when my vision began to fail, I switched from print to speech. I had to embrace a very different way of reading. In my visual days, if I fell asleep with a book, my eyes and brain would shut down at the same time and that made it easy to later find my place. As a blind guy, my Talking Book cassette player would ramble on, ignoring the snoring, until it ran out of tape. Much of my early adult life was spent holding down the Rewind button and listening to the shrill inverse chatter, dragging me backwards, until I finally found familiar text.

Fortuitously, the year before I lost my ability to read any print, Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh and then, at that same presentation, the machine spoke up and introduced itself. The potential of digital text and voice synthesis was immediately clear and exciting.

Over the years, I regularly searched for Macintosh tools that would let my computer speak. I discovered "Talking Moose," a goofy little program where an animated critter would make smart-aleck remarks while you worked. It was very robotic, but very understandable. Other vocal utilities, such as outSpoken and Talk2Me, began to speak up. As we moved into the 1990s, Apple pursued serious work on what became PlainTalk. Victoria was born of these efforts. I still recollect the many special times she whispered in my ear.

I craved greater access. I did not think that lugging around a desktop or laptop was the ideal way to harvest information. I desired to stay connected and discover interesting things everywhere and all the time. In 2010, I found the ideal tool, my first iPhone with VoiceOver.

For the last six years, I have focused my knowledge gathering and all electronic communications through this incredible device. VoiceOver has given me access to nearly everything I could imagine. Now, as we move ahead, I look for VoiceOver to evolve and grow stronger.

Good voices remain critical. I have my own favorite. I really like Alex. Perhaps it is his subtle breathing between sentences. But, I have made friends with other voices over the years, and wish I could put them to work on my iPhone. Some apps, like Voice Dream Reader and Writer, do allow for many other voices within their own sandboxes, and they seem to play together well. Not only would I like multiple voices, I'd like to be able to assign them to different apps and set local variables such as speed and amount of punctuation spoken. I even imagine being able to use an iPhone with the overly articulate, super fast, and dreadfully mechanical Eloquence voice. With enough coffee, I could zip through anything. Maybe. Other days and in different situations, I would love to relax with a soft and mellifluous voice. I like choices. Just as intensity, hue, value and texture broaden and enhance the visual experience, I believe allowing different voices to join our VoiceOver experience would add color that we can hear.

I would also enjoy a bit of fine-tuning with how volume is managed inside of VoiceOver. Although it is a minor hindrance, it would be grand if VoiceOver did not occasionally and unexpectedly dip and rise in volume. Sometimes, VoiceOver cuts out all together. I would also love more control over how loud music plays while I am listening to text. Some limited control is available, but I simply cannot make music a gentler and less intrusive part of the background while I am reading.

I suspect I sometimes hold VoiceOver responsible for any and all hiccups on my iPhone. So, in acknowledgement that I might be totally unfair, I wonder if VoiceOver is responsible for something that continues to get me in trouble. On occasion, after I have silenced my iPhone with the appropriate two-finger tap, it waits a bit and then spontaneously starts to read whatever text or audio book I had been enjoying, even starting up right after I answer a phone call. That can be particularly awkward. I was recently reading a popular novel when things suddenly got hot and frisky between a couple in the story. A call came in, the story stopped, and I answered the call. It was my mother. Something in my iPhone decided to restart reading the steamy encounter and, not wanting my mother to hear, I hung up on her. Never a good idea to hang up on your mother. I have tried to replicate the bug, but I can only listen to that lively little scene so many times.

Overall, I love my iPhone and the VoiceOver interface. Yes, some changes and a few improvements would be most welcome, but I am really happy that this one device can meet nearly all of my information needs. Now, if VoiceOver could just be aware that there are times when it is good to be discrete and keep quiet.

*** G. Morgan Watkins enjoyed a long working relationship with both The University of Texas at Austin and Guide Dogs for the Blind. He is now happily retired, pondering the many voices he has known. Morgan has written ten other blogs for AppleVis, including “Lesson Learned: iPhones and Orange Bugs”, “Socially Inept: Trying to make friends with Facebook” and “Second Career: Putting retired iPhones back to work”. He deeply appreciates your comments and feedback.

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18 Comments

Nice Journey Down Memory Lane

Hi, Morgan. As I read your post, I realized how similar my journey with assistive technology has been. Though I was born blind, I did not experience the first magic of the talking computer until I was nearly 30. And what a journey it has been!

I have gone from a guy who was scared to death of technology to a guy who just accepted a job as a digital accessibility consultant and trainer with a global software company. And it's all because of the many voices we have heard!

Thanks, Keith

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Dear Keith Bundy,

I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. Much of the fun in writing these pieces comes from being able to look back and remember the thrill of new access methods and many new discoveries.

I'm really happy to hear of your own recent successes! Truly wonderful!

Best wishes,

Morgan

Playing Around with Voices

Morgan, thanks for yet another enjoyable blog post. I was also born blind, and my first exposure to computers came in the 80's with the AppleIIE that my parents got. I can remember marveling over that robotic voice inside the computer, and I loved playing around with that demo. The one which had all the funny voices of the Echo. Ever since then I've had great fun with all the different screen reader voices I've had. I'm currently at my parents' place for the weekend. The bedroom door is shut and my system volume is rather low. My youngest sister, who is fully sighted, always complains about my computer's speech being too loud. But my sister who is blind lives in the downstairs apartment, so she seldom if ever gets chewed out by our sister, lol! As far as what VoiceOver voice I like best, I don't know. I agree with you about Alex. I also really like the novelty ones such as Good News, Bad News, and Cellos since I played the cello throughout school. I, too, hope Apple fixes the speech issues we've been having. I'd say I've been experiencing them to a lesser degree in recent weeks, but still they do need to be addressed.

I remember the DOS days

Hey Morgan, thanks for another trip down memory lane.

I also remember the days of the cassette books, and even the vinyl and floppy disk versions, as well.

Back in the 80s, while attending college, I was absolutely thrilled to use something called WinVision, which made my DOS computer talk. I also had access to a piece of software called Word Talk, a word processer. I thought I had made it good because I could use my computer just as my sighted peers could.

Then came JAWS. When I switched to Windows and JAWS, I began to see that I was extremely limited with WinVision and DOS. Now I have my precious iPhone and Apple Watch. How far we have come. I am so thankful that we have inventers and developers who make it possible to be independent. It was such a pain to deal with human readers, during my college days, who probably couldn't even pronounce the words in my psychological statistics books. Now I can read for myself.

As always, another great read from your desk. Keep em coming.

Thanks, Holger! Great question.

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Dear Holger Fiallo,

I love the question in your comment title:

"What happen with your wife?"

When my son focused on the strange woman's voice coming from the computer in my hotel room, I will admit that my heart skipped a beat, or two. I was already thinking of restarting the software installation process to get the recorded lady talking again. When my wife got on the phone, she was totally amused. She had immediately figured out what was going on. This has remained a favorite family memory for many, many years. Around here, everything I own talks. Always has.

My wife and I have now been married for more than 35 years. Thanks for your question. You made us both smile.

Best wishes,

Morgan

Thanks, Jake

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Dear Jake,

It was nice to hear from you. I enjoyed hearing of your youngest sister's objections to all the computer speech. In my attempt not to monopolize the surrounding sound waves of my immediate environment and to remain a tad more discrete, I live around the clock with EarPods stuck in my head. I probably look like a science experiment.

I agree with you that the Cellos voice was fun. Thanks for reminding me of it!

Best wishes,

Morgan

Thanks, Roxann! DOS Rules!

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Dear Roxann,

Thanks for bringing up DOS. I loved DOS. I used it from Day One. I was very geeky and read the entire manuals for both PC DOS, IBM's rebranded version, and MS-DOS, the offering from Microsoft. A rite of passage back then was to know the internals of the CHKDSK command (Check Disk) and all of the associated parameters. Ah, life as a nerd was great!

I also enjoyed your comment about human readers struggling with your "psychological statistics" books. I had the same difficulty with those who attempted to read my computer science volumes. Semi-colons might not seem terribly important to some readers, but writing code without knowing the complete syntax of a programming language is arduous at best.

Thanks again for your message and the memories,

Morgan

When I was nine, my family

When I was nine, my family bought a Commodore 64. I couldn't do much with that at all… You know how it is, trying to play space invaders no idea where the ships are and so on… Then, when I was 11, I got to see some brand-new games, and also a program called Sam: the software automatic mouth. It was very limited… It would only say what you told it to say… But it was still quite fascinating… It opened up a whole new world for me: computers could actually talk. In the meantime, I learn how to do Soundesign with the C 64, and I could make music and sound with it quite naturally by the time I was 12. Then, my school got me an apple to EE with the old echo synthesizer, which sounded terrible in comparison with Sam… But… It could do far more! For the first time I could actually receive voice feedback from the computer and interact with programs… Meanwhile, I had books from recording for the blind… And often times, those Raiders didn't pronounce things very much better than a Seiter meter that I would could've hired would have… But, I could still learn from them… Except for computer programming… They can never read the code exactly right, and so they're always errors… I remember having to lug huge boxes of books around if I wanted to be able to read… Then came windows, and now the iPhone. I have learning ally, what was recording for the blind, books in my pocket… I can carry around dozens of them at once… I can speed them up and slow them down. At the same time, I have books from BARD Mobile as well! Technology just keeps getting better and better, despite the negative things that we often see, such as apps being in accessible, we have to stop and praise Apple and the developers that have made accessible apps… We have literally thousands of apps we can use now! Not only that, Alex, with his nice subtle breathing, surpasses echo by 1000 million light-years!

Volume adjustment of Speech versus Audio

Morgan,

Maybe you know this already, but if you don't and/or for the sake of others, folks should know that it *is* possible to independently change the volume of speech versus the volume of audio.

If one adds the "volume" setting to the rotor, this will only affect the volume of VoiceOver speech and not the volume of other audio. Thus, one can adjust the volume of audio using the volume up/down buttons in the usual way and then go to the volume setting in the rotor and change the volume of VoiceOver while keeping the audio volume the same.

Hope that helps someone.

--pete

Thanks, Ken. Fun memories.

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Ken,

How fun! Although I never bought a C64, I did see the earlier generation Commodore Pet around 1978 in a Computer Science study area at my university. The model I saw had these really tiny, tightly packed,square keys that just did not allow for easy typing. Outside of touching it, I never really did use it. I think it had a cassette tape drive built into it for storage. It is fun to remember those old personal computers.

Nowadays, I am a big fan of technology that fits into my pocket. It has been fun to watch accessible devices mature and shrink in size. I remember when many books were being moved into plain text files and I bought the original RoadRunner. It had 3 megabytes of memory and was about the size of a deck of playing cards. It required two double-A batteries and would read plain text files for about 40 hours. I used to take that with me when my son and I went camping. He could play with the campfire, I could read a book!

Now, we have iPhones. Life is grand!

I really enjoyed your note. Thanks for sharing the memories.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend,

Morgan

Thanks, Pete. A bit more on the Volume option in the Rotor

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Pete,

You are exactly right. The Volume option enabled in the VoiceOver rotor will let you raise and lower the VoiceOver text volume when compared to that of the audio channel. Unfortunately, I do not know how to adjust the Rotor Volume setting so that the music is playing very softly while I am listening to VoiceOver reading text in a much louder voice. I do not think it has that much flexibility. When I wrote the blog, I was thinking of the Rotor Volume approach. If the functionality of the Volume option were modified a bit, I believe it could be extended in this way. That would be cool!

One of my favorite apps is "Nature Space," which plays natural sound recordings such as thunder storms or ocean waves in the background. One of the neat settings inside of "Nature Space" is being able to turn the volume of the app output really low so that you can read, write or research, easily listening to text read aloud by VoiceOver, while still enjoying a very soft background of rain, waves, or a chorus of crickets. I set the app output at 2%. I'd like to be able to do the same with music.

Thanks for sharing the info about the Volume option in the VoiceOver rotor. It can be very handy and may prove helpful for many folks.

Best wishes,

Morgan

Also in iTunes

It is also possible to change the music volume in iTunes independently from that of VoiceOver. At least this is possible on the Mac, but I'm not sure about other devices with iTunes. I do this all the time though when I'm working on here, and want to listen to some music. I remember this was also possible in Winamp. In addition, I have a set of very good external speakers which I sometimes use. Winamp could also pan the music and other audio left and right, and do some other nifty stuff. I think this is true of the iTunes equalizer, but I haven't played around with it that much.

Thanks for the ideas

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Jake,

Thanks for these additional suggestions. Although I will keep my fingers crossed for an even simpler way to minimize audio while cranking up text output, I am always interested in good work-arounds. If I can just get the music really soft and unobtrusive, and keep the text engine humming loud enough, I will be one very happy fellow.

Another thoughtful reader, Pete, suggested the Volume option in the VoiceOver Rotor for changing the volume balances between audio and text. Although I could not get the music quiet enough while speech remained loud using the Volume option in the Rotor, I did find another use for it. I was copying large files between remote file stores via my iPhone, using Dropbox and FileBrowser, and although I did not really want to listen attentively to the percentage complete, I did want to know when the task was finished. So, I left music loud, turned speech down to a whisper, , and it was perfect.

It is really nice to get such thoughtful feedback from folks who read the blog.

Great to hear from you, Jake!

Best wishes,

Morgan

The first time I heard a computer talk

I remember the first time I heard a computer talk in the late 1980s. Funnily enough, it was not a speech program, but a 5-1/4 floppy disk that took forever to load. It was not anything productive, but somebody trying to be funny and making a program that announced in a cheerful British voice, "and now, the sounds of John Denver being strangled." It was followed by a few seconds of a John Denver song, I don't remember which one, and then, you guessed it, just what the program said. I laughed at the time, because to a kid of about 13, it was really hysterical! However, from that point on, I began to wonder why, if someone could write talking software for a computer, there was nothing to read the screen for those of us who couldn't read it ourselves. Luckily, I found out, there was such a program on the Apple II-E. The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks for making me remember the sounds of John Denver. Hah.

Addition: After posting this initially, it occurred to me to look that sound byte up on Youtube. Funnily enough, I discovered that it was a Monty Python skit. And yes, it is still funny today.

Thanks, Sockhopsinger!

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Dear Sockhopsinger,

Thank you for sharing your story. I really enjoyed hearing of that moment when you knew so much more was possible.

I, too, was inspired by something I heard when I was 13. Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" came out in April, 1968, and the talking computer Hal seemed achievable in our lifetimes. Granted, Hal's voice was that of an actor, and the computer was a little too focused on protecting resources, but the talking interactions were fascinating.

Apple Computer came out with a short video in 1987 called "Knowledge Navigator," that demonstrated their vision of a talking interface for the future. Again, an actor was used for voicing the computer, but it was a good representation of their thoughts at the time. I remember seeing it at the WWDC meetings when they were held in San Jose.

Apple Computer also produced a 1989 video called "Independence Day," which came out many years before the science fiction film of the same name. "Independence Day" highlighted how computers, and specifically the Macintosh, could allow for greater accessibility. I had a small part in that film, demonstrating the very early talking software that I had on my Mac. When Apple asked if they could include me in their short film, I took a chance and said "Yes, if you will include my son." They did! He was only a year old at the time, but he was captured on film eating a cookie and pushing a diskette into my computer. As a Dad, it just doesn't get much better than that! I did find both Apple videos on Youtube this morning.

That was fun! Thanks for sharing your memories and stirring up my own.

Best wishes,

Morgan

Fascinating read

This was a really fascinating Read. I really enjoy learning about old access tech" Thanks again for another great article.

Thanks, Ezzie

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Ezzie,

You are very welcome. Thanks for your comment. I enjoy sharing historical tidbits and will likely share other fun remembrances in the future. I find our growing access to information fascinating and very liberating.

Best wishes,

Morgan