Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Changing colas and switching relationships: Reflections on synthesized speech

I’ve written previously that I’ve been using JAWS for more than 10 years. In those years, I’ve also grown in the amount of time I spend on the computer. I’ve gone from 2-3 hours at the computer each day to probably spending 8 or more hours a day. Today, I would like to offer this experience as a qualifier to validate what follows as the perspective of a well experienced veteran of assistive technology and synthesized speech. Here goes…

Although I haven’t used Job Access With Speech, better known in assistive tech (AT) circles as JAWS, since its inception, I have been around for quite a bit of transition in the life cycle of this powerful tool. When I began using JAWS, it came on four floppy discs (yes, those 1.4 MB storage devices that wouldn’t even hold one song in mp3 format) and one of those disks was used only for the installation and removal of authorization key. It was also still being made by the company known as Henter Joyce. I marveled when, I believe it was, JAWS 3.0, or maybe 3.5, arrived on a neatly packaged CD-ROM. I just thought this was AT taking a big step forward and catching up with the rest of this modern world.

I also recall that this first distribution of JAWS on CD was my first introduction to the Eloquence speech engine. I have grown to use this as my default speech synthesizer and prefer it over all others that I’ve tried. I think it offers the best sound clarity and understandable speech. I do understand that not everybody feels this way, but this is my opinion.

However, before the switch to Eloquence, I had been using DECTalk Express, an external, device that had its own volume dial and needed to be plugged into one of the computer’s com ports. I also remember feeling at that time that a shift in reliance from a hardware-based speech synthesizer to one that was just another piece of software was something near blasphemy.

The DECTalk Express unit was small and sat nicely atop the rear half of the top of my CPU on the folding table turned computer desk, which was the Wal-mart version of the kinds used universally in school cafeterias. I had selected the Express model because it could be unplugged from my pc and plugged into any other computer that I needed to use. That portability feature was one of the selling points on choosing DECTalk over the other synthesizers I had been shown.

During my tech evaluation at the Assistive Technology Unit in Austin, I was shown JAWS and Window Eyes for screen reader choices and, obviously for what I wanted to do on the computer, I felt JAWS would be the best option. I was then shown three or four speech synthesizers. By far, I felt that DECTalk voices were the best. I was very sold on this selection and actually felt a little snobbish glee inside as a result of the inference the evaluator had made, when I said that I liked DECTalk best, was that this was the Cadillac of synths.

I used the DEC Express, as I came to call the talking box, for a couple of years without problems. I would adjust the volume up and down depending on the noise around me. That took place several times a day. Even though the new company Freedom Scientific assured me that I didn’t need to, I still chose to use it after JAWS introduced Eloquence. Sure, I installed Eloquence and tried it out for pure curiosity reasons. But that new technology sounded plastic and just didn’t have the warmth and realism that the DEC Express, with its nice collection of voices, gave me.

Then one day, I noticed the DEC Express began to emit a loud, scratchy noise whenever I turned the volume knob. That was bad, but not quite a killer for me. I just had to either get used to it or leave the volume at one level. Over the period of a couple of months, this degenerated to an untenable situation and I opted to try that new-fangled JAWS’ software synthesizer.

“Okay,” I thought, this isn’t too bad once you get used to it. But, I still preferred the soothing tones of DEC Express.

The final blow came when I got a new computer and the disk with the drivers for the DEC Express was hopelessly lost. With no other alternative, I made Eloquence my default speech engine on that new machine. Periodically, I would get this longing for my old friend DEC Express and fiddle around with it, trying to make it work. I even tried to find some resources online for the manufacturer, Digital Equipment Company. The company had been sold and finding online support in the late ‘90s was difficult for me to locate. All of this effort seemed to be of no avail, though, and I mostly abandoned my old friend, completely trading his companionship for that new kid on the block.

I kept that neat, little box atop the pc for a long time, thinking I would still find something that could fix it, but eventually began to store it on one of my bookshelves with other assorted, still viable tech equipment. Down the line, after I got married, we moved and it went from being stored on the bookshelf to being in a box that never got unpacked. From there, I think it went out with some other discarded material I didn’t have need for nor the room to store any longer.

I continued to use Eloquence over these years while JAWS has advanced to version 9. Along the way, I’ve watched the screen reader and assistive technology fields for news and breakthroughs in technology, mostly forgetting about my old friend DEC Express.

Then, last year, I tried out Serotek’s System Access To Go,which was good, but the speech didn’t work great for me. I was too used to the voices on Eloquence that the SAToGo speech engine didn’t even sound right. It sounded too mechanical. I looked at the overview of SAToGo to find what type of space alien voice box it was using for a speech engine.

What’s that? Did I read that correctly? SAToGo uses DECTalk. And, yes, I am the one who said this sounded too mechanical. Was I the one who is now blathering blasphemy?

Since finding that out, I felt like somebody who had been a die-hard drinker of one kind of cola, and when it became unavailable, switched to the other one and stuck with it. Now, years later, I’ve become accustomed to that other cola and think the first one just doesn’t taste right.

I know that the feelings I had for the DEC Express were warm, genuine, and right for where I was at the time. Since letting go and moving on to Eloquence, I’ve grown very fond of it and definitely prefer it over any other synth I’ve heard. Its sort of like a relationship. You get a lot out of it because you rely on that other part of you for so much, but when looking back at it from the safety and security of the new relationship, that first one just isn’t as magical as it once was.

Make what you want from this examination of my transition from DECTalk to Eloquence. It is still a little puzzling to me how my loyalty has shifted so much to land where it is today, but it is what it is.


Susabelle said...

Just keep repeating..."change is good."

Funny how we adjust but only when we have to, and then find out it was no big thing and we should have adjusted earlier and gotten it out of the way.

Ron Graham said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for the comment.

BTW, I like your piece the other day on the ATHEN blog. Glad to see you on with them.

Susabelle said...

Thanks! I just did another post this morning, and you're in it!

I am also a tech blogger, I write for www.geeknewscentral.com. That is general tech stuff, and I mostly specialize in green living-type entries.