Speechcasting

By Alan Runyan – The Plone BLOG – An attempt to bridge speech-to-text with podcasting for the visually impaired.

Speechcasting, ability to dynamically generated podcast's of latest updates on a website using text-to-speech technology. I am naive about how visually impaired persons work with the internet. Several years ago I watched a blind person use Plone at a Snow Sprint — it was one of the most moving events in my life. The fact that Plone, which has been accessibility minded for years was usable with brail keyboard and the user could create new content types and work with the user interface was awe-inspiring.  

So its been a few years but I recently saw someone make a new Speech Synthesis product for the Plone CMS. And then I started thinking, "What if every time I added a News Item on my website, if I could automatically generate a decent text-to-speech .mp3 file and use podcasting to keep people up-to-date?" After hacking on it I asked someone "Is this a good idea?" and they said "If I can read it why would I care to listen to computer generated voice?" and that confirmed it — people arent thinking about the visually impaired.

After a hour Sidnei and I cooked up a very simple product that uses Five, the zope 3 library bridge software that allows developers to use libraries from zope 3 in the zope 2 application server. This sounds scarier than it is. After all zope 3, five, zope 2 — its all just python libraries. Anyway — what we did was interesting because we wrote the extensibility "plugins" around how the speech will be generated. The idea is that over time better speech text could be generated.
I have always liked Speech Synthesis, back on DOS when I used to play with phoentic programs — I always loved it. But now there is a sensible idea — lets generate audio versions of latest news for websites. And with the text-to-speech engine, Mary you can do all sorts of interesting ways of inflection and intonation on the generated voice.
So why did I do this?

  • See if Speechcasting is a interesting idea for others around the internet. Especially the visually impaired. I am very interested in hearing feedback from people who could use this idea in everyday life. That is the most important audience.
  • Show other developers how easy Five/Zope3 is to use for the Plone CMS. Very simple. No need to have actions code, or install/uninstall scripts and all the boilerplate code that comes with CMF/Plone.
  • Actually do a tad bit of programming. Even though the code is HORRIBLE for Speechcast – its checked into the Collective, I needed to program something fun for a change. Sidnei thought the idea was cool so I did it. And it was enjoyable — Python is the funnest language and zope3/five brings lots of fun with it!

I would love to hear what your think about Speechcast (of course not the code quality) but the merit of the idea. IF you know anyone who is familiar with accessibility technology – please pass the word on. After all in the Plone community we are very mindful and want to help out those that may be overlooked by commercial software. When this whole AJAX/Web2.0 stuff reaches it peak — how many people will be left not being able to use computers because of the lack of accesibility? I hope Plone continues its long tradition of keeping in mind those who inspired us at the Snow Sprint a few years ago — the impaired who gain so much by us keeping them in our thoughts.

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