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.