[AI] Speakon

shahnaz shycurrim at yahoo.co.in
Fri Jul 27 04:21:29 EDT 2007


Multimedia Devices
- Q and A.

+12: Moving On Up
by Isaac Porat.

In February last year, E-Access Bulletin reported on
plans for 'SpeakOn', a hardware device aimed at
providing access to
selected news and entertainment audio web content
without the need
for high IT skills. The project is being headed by
assistive technology
charity a-technic
http://www.a-technic.net ).

Planned content included DAISY-formatted books, MP3
music files,
internet radio stations, podcasts and other web site
content including
online newspapers.

Since that time, the project has split into two
elements: SpeakOn which
is a free software product, now available, that anyone
can download
and run on their PC; and the original concept of a
hardware box, now
codenamed 'Pipistrelle' and still in development. This
month, E-Access
Bulletin interviews the creator and developer of
SpeakOn, Isaac Porat,
and finds out exactly what is planned for this new

Q: What is SpeakOn and what can it do?

A: SpeakOn is free, self-voicing software for finding,
retrieving and
listening to media.

The E-Access Bulletin news item about SpeakOn in
February 2006
talked mainly about a self-contained box, but we
subsequently decided
to launch SpeakOn first as software for the PC. This
software caters for
people who are comfortable with computers but are
looking for an easy
and relaxing way to enjoy media.

SpeakOn was launched in June 2006 (almost exactly a
year ago) and
has had a number of major upgrades since. It now
covers pretty well all
specialized media services for blind people in the UK,
as well as
general types of media such as internet radio and
podcasts. Much work
has been done to improve the user interface for ease
of use and more
features in handling general formats and media types
have been added.

In its most recent feature release last month, support
is provided to
browse and listen directly to the latest audio
narrated streaming service
provided by the talking newspaper organisation
http://www.tnauk.org.uk/ ).

It also closes some gaps in SpeakOn's media cover by
handling CDs of
MP3 books such as those supplied by Calibre and
support for audio
CDs. The album and track names are spoken to the user
if available on
the internet repository. Although SpeakOn is free for
use, it is not open
source. This is because we want to maintain control
over its
development path.

Q: What first triggered the development of SpeakOn?

A: SpeakOn was born out of my own frustrations as a
blind person in
finding, retrieving and playing media such as music,
newspapers and magazines using conventional PC access
technology. I
was tired of memorising endless shortcut keys for
applications and wanted a more relaxing way of
listening to media
rather than having to sit upright in front of my
computer. I started to
develop SpeakOn essentially for myself to address
these issues.

Q: What unique features does SpeakOn offer that
differentiate it from
other products and tools already on the market?

A: Currently, SpeakOn contains two applications; the
first one, the
'Media Centre' covers a range of general purpose and
special media
services for the blind. All these media can be
accessed by conventional
means, but SpeakOn offers a uniform approach and
therefore ease of
use and speed for finding, retrieving and playing the
media it supports.

The second application includes a player for the
popular 'Last.FM'
internet music service. The players available already
for this service
are to my knowledge essentially not accessible for
blind users.

Q: What has been most challenging about developing the

A: SpeakOn is all about using the same interface,
regardless of the
media used. In the real world, the various media are
available in
different locations remotely and on the user's
computer. These media
come in different text and audio formats, and a great
challenge has
always been for the software to do as much work as
possible 'under the
hood' so that to the user it all appears the same.

Q: How have you overcome these challenges?

A: I started with the basic interface model and a
range of supported
media. Feedback from users started to arrive after the
launch of
SpeakOn in late June 2006. There are a number of
enthusiastic fans
who are prepared to stay in touch on a regular basis
and test new
features of the program, giving advice and
suggestions; this proved
invaluable and I am grateful to them.

Over the past year, the user interface has been
gradually improved and
more features based on user feedback added. I realise
that as SpeakOn
grows, more help will be needed from the community in
links to media resources, documentation and just
spreading the word.

Q: How many people use SpeakOn?

A: There have been over 1,000 public downloads so far.
Now that the
features and support for specialised media are
generally complete, I
feel that SpeakOn is ready for a bigger audience.

Q: Is SpeakOn a type of screen reader?

A: Most blind people know about screen readers or
magnifiers and
their use in a Windows-type system. Screen readers try
to enable
access to conventional programs designed for sighted
users with a
varying degree of success, depending on how the
mainstream software
is written.

SpeakOn is different in its interface and approach in
that it has no
visual interface.  It is designed from the ground up
for input by a
limited number of keys and speech is built in for
communicating with
the user. The interface is optimised for easy media

SpeakOn is not competing against screen readers as
screen readers are
an essential tool for everyday use in accessing
mainstream software.
SpeakOn just addresses a specific problem in providing
a quick and
relaxing way to access media from the comfort of your
Because of its unconventional approach, it may not
suit everybody.

Q: Can SpeakOn be used by organisations as well as by

A: The SpeakOn licence does not distinguish between
use by
individuals or organisations, and any organisation is
welcome to train
users to access media using SpeakOn if they wish.

We are currently collaborating with screenreader.net,
the distributor of
the Thunder screen reader, to provide free computer
access for the
broadest user-base possible. We recognise that we both
are providing
products that complement each other.

We are also collaborating with organisations that
provide specialized
online content, notably TNAUK and the Seeing Ear
Library. Other
online content such as the Soundings magazine and ACB
radio for
example can be accessed using SpeakOn with its
standard interfaces.
DAISY and MP3 books distributed by various
organisations can also
be easily played, and we are in discussion with
various other
organisations in the UK and the US about possible
developments and provision of content.

Q: What is planned for the future of SpeakOn?

A: SpeakOn so far has been aimed at people who are
comfortable using computers. This version of SpeakOn
will always be
there and will be developed further to include more
media and possibly
applications beyond media as well.

However, I am currently developing a version of
SpeakOn specifically
for people who have limited knowledge of computers.
This version
will be offered to the public in the next few months
for the Windows
operating system.

It is recognised that some people will never use
computers and to that
end we at a-technic would like to offer the 'easy'
version of SpeakOn or
similar, operating in its own box. Together with my
colleagues, Chris Mairs and John Batty, I have started
to work on this
project, codenamed Pipistrelle.  SpeakOn already runs
under the Linux
operating system but more work needs to be done to
make this a
practical proposition. Linux is free and can be
tailored to do
specifically what SpeakOn requires for its
functionality running on a
dedicated hardware.

In its own box, Pipistrelle like the existing SpeakOn
software running
on a standard laptop, will communicate through WiFi
and broadband,
using a simple numerical keypad or a similar device
for input and will
connect to standard speakers and HiFi.

For this stage in the development, specific hardware
will be required
and we will need to form partnerships with companies
organisations that will help us by manufacturing,
distributing and
supporting the product.

NOTE: For more information about SpeakOn and to
download the
software and view the manual, see:
http://www.a-technic.net/speakon.htm .

Isaac Porat is a professor of materials science at the
University of
Manchester. He is also a trustee of TNAUK and
a-technic. SpeakOn
was developed as a labour of love in his spare time.
Isaac can be
contacted at:
speakon at a-technic.net .

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