Teaching your computer to do a Monologue

Personal computers

December 31, 1990|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN I RAN A NEW program called Monologue on my PC, I knew how the first people who ever used a telephone must have felt.

"My God, the machine talks!"

Actually, people have been making PCs talk for some time. But Monologue didn't just talk. It actually read the word processing document on my screen. It read columns of numbers from a spreadsheet. It even read the DOS prompt.

It did all this using the standard PC speaker, a neat trick considering that the original IBM design was aimed at producing beeps and honks, not reproducing human speech.

The $149 utility from First Byte Software has a variety of potential uses. The most obvious is an aid to people with bad eyesight. For people with hearing or speech problems, it can turn the PC into a communications tool.

For the rest of us, it turns the PC into a terrific proofreader. For example, you've just copied a couple of hundred numbers from a piece of paper into a spreadsheet. You're bound to make some mistakes.

Just have Monologue read them back to you while you concentrate on the original. It's much easier than trying to match the screen with the paper.

Monologue is a TSR (terminate and stay resident) program. When you load it, it disappears until you toggle it on by pressing a special combination of keys.

When you invoke Monologue with a word processor, spreadsheet or other program on your screen, a special cursor appears. Use the cursor to highlight the text you want to hear, and Monologue reads it aloud. No fuss, no muss, no sticky mess. Well, almost no sticky mess.

With another keystroke you can have Monologue read an entire screen. A separate utility program will take any standard text file on your disk and read the whole thing aloud.

There are some limitations, however. Monologue works only with programs that operate in "text" mode, using the PC's standard character set.

Most standalone word processors, spreadsheets and databases operate in text mode, or they can be configured to operate this way.

Monologue will not work with graphics-based programs, such as those running under Microsoft Windows. Nor will it run within multi-tasking environments, such as DesqView, or with programs that use the so-called "protected" mode of AT-style computers. For example, it won't run with Release 3 of Lotus 1-2-3, which uses the protected mode, but it will work with earlier Lotus versions.

Installing Monologue is fairly easy, but tweaking it can be a pain. This is where the program's rough edges show.

The installation routine is straightforward. The program senses what kind of system you have and generally picks the level of speech reproduction that matches your computer's speed and memory configuration. You can override this, if you like.

The lower levels of reproduction take up less memory and require less computing horsepower, but they don't sound as good.

Unfortunately, if you haven't installed the proper level of reproduction (you can tell because your machine will lock up or stutter), you have to delete all your files and go through the whole installation process again. This is bad design.

You can also tell Monologue whether to use the standard PC speaker or a third-party speech circuit board, if you have one. The program supports the Covox Speech Thing, Street Electronics Echo PC, Creative Labs Sound Blaster and speech cards from Hearsay, Tandy and IBM.

Once the program is installed, you can adjust the pitch, speed, volume and type of voice (male or female). It may take a little experimenting to get it right for your speaker.

Monologue speaks with a vague Eastern European accent. It's rather like listening to a lecture by a dull Romanian professor.

The quality depends a lot on your computer. If you have a noisy fan or a speaker at the back of the system instead of on the front or side, you may have trouble hearing or understanding it. But most people should be able to pick up the program's inflection quickly.

The faster your computer, and the more memory you have, the better the program will work.

Speech generation on computers is nothing new. Apple Macintoshes have built-in hardware that can reproduce speech. However, the Macintosh is generally limited to reproducing digitally recorded speech or speech generated by specific application programs.

First Byte was one of the first companies to produce intelligible speech on a standard IBM PC speaker. Until now, it has concentrated mostly on games and educational software.

What sets Monologue apart is its ability to read text from the screen and the intelligence with which it turns the text into speech.

According to First Byte, the program applies more than 1,000 different rules to determine speed, pitch and inflection as it translates characters to speech.

It also recognizes standard writing conventions. For example, when it sees the expression "e.g.," it says, "for example." When it sees "i.e.," it says, "that is."

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