In the everyday world, speech is our most common form of communication. But as soon as we sit down at our computers, chances are we enter a silent world where all communication is visual.
So it was quite a revolution when I gave my PC a set of vocal chords and began to listen to it talk to me.
Monologue 2.0 from First Byte in Santa Ana, Calif., (714) 432-1740, is a $149 software program that gives a PC the power of speech. It is an upgrade of SmoothTalker, which First Byte introduced in 1984.
Unlike digitized speech, which is essentially a digital recording of actual spoken words, Monologue creates synthesized speech by reading the text or numbers on your screen and pronouncing them according to an elaborate set of rules.
The software is memory-resident, meaning that when you start it, the program loads itself into your computer's memory and then returns control to you so that you can run other programs.
When you are ready to ask Monologue to read to you, press the "hot key" combination of Alt-T and a small menu appears on the bottom line of your screen, along with a square marker in the middle of the screen. You move that marker, either with cursor keys or a mouse, to highlight the portion of the screen that you want to be read. Pressing the Enter key starts the voice.
A male or female voice is available, with either bass or treble tone. The built-in speaker in a PC serves as the voice outlet, but, frankly, it doesn't sound very good. At least not on either machine I tested.
To show what can be expected with a better speaker, First Byte included an external speaker system for the PC in its preview package. The $80 unit is called Speech Thing, manufactured by Covox Inc. of Eugene, Ore., (503) 342-1271. It is a speaker about 2.5 inches in diameter in its own plastic enclosure, complete with an on-off-volume switch. (Other audio systems are available and supported by Monologue, such as Sound Blaster, Echo PC (plus sign), Hearsay, IBM Speech Card, IBM PS/1 audio card and the audio built into certain Tandy computers.)
A simple connector attaches to the printer port of the computer with the printer cable then attaching to that connector. In other words, voice signals are passed out of the printer port where they are intercepted by the speaker. If you leave the speaker on when you print, you will hear static as the signals are sent on to the printer.
The whole setup is very easy to use. First Byte deserves special praise for providing one of the easiest and most foolproof software installation procedures that I have seen. A lot of the big software publishing houses should do so well.
Is computer speech just a gimmick? Why would you want it?
Several answers come easily to mind. First, anyone who is visually handicapped would surely benefit from having the computer read back what has been typed.
This is also the case for other users. I've always had a hard time proofreading my writing from the computer screen. Either I fail to see that the words I thought I wrote aren't really there, or I fail to see extra words that are on the screen and shouldn't be. Either way, proofing while Monologue reads the text imposes a discipline that makes it more likely to catch mistakes.
The voice is understandable -- much more so with the Speech Thing speaker -- and even has a degree of inflection, rising at the end of questions and falling at the end of sentences. But it doesn't sound like a voice for which English is a native language. There is a sing-song quality to it that is unnatural.
The program also can be set up to read an entire file. One way you might use this is to have Monologue read your electronic mail to you as you attend to something else on your desk.