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Why computers still stumble and mumble

Does software exist to convert text to audio? If so, which would you recommend?

It's far easier for a computer to turn written text into speech than for it to wreck a nice beach (I mean recognize speech).

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Enormous subtleties of human speech have prevented computer-makers and software writers from attaining reliable conversion of stuff like casual oral interviews, telephone calls and even radio and television broadcasts into computer-ready text. Each computer must be trained for an individual user's unique voice to get acceptable results.

While a tool to convert human speech to computer text is important, there is less need for stuff that goes the other way. So, we're stuck without good software to scan text and create a computerized voice to say it aloud with clarity and accuracy.

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Software that can read aloud the numbers in every spreadsheet cell while you check the original source for accuracy is handy. Microsoft Office 2002 includes such text-to-speech conversion in Excel 2002, which will read aloud Word documents in a variety of voices including that of "Microsoft Sam," a guy who makes physicist Stephen Hawking's famous computer voice sound like Pavarotti.

The Windows XP system includes pretty disappointing text-to-speech using a feature called Narrator, in the Accessibility folder. It is designed primarily to help the visually impaired. (Click Start then Programs/Accessories/Accessibility). The problem is that Narrator can't be set to read just parts of a document - it can read only the entire display.

Perhaps the least expensive and easiest to use dedicated text-speaking software is Text Aloud MP3 from NextUp Technologies LLC. It accepts input from text files and recites the words on the spot or turns them into MP3 speech files that one can listen to on digital portable music players and some cell phones. AT&T; spent years developing Text Aloud's simulated human voices, which make using the software far less like arguing with a robot than usual. Prices start at $25 at NextUp.com.

Apple's Macintosh computers have come with built-in text-to-speech almost since the beginning, in 1984. This includes about all models except some that lack audio hardware. Open Apple's Text Edit or Teach Text word-processing module, type in a sentence, then click on Edit and Speech. This reads with impressive clarity.

Contact James Coates at jcoates@tribune.com.


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