Few events in human history have had the same impact as the advent of the written word. Many experts believe that writing so fundamentally changed the human consciousness that it’s hard for everyone, even those who cannot read, to comprehend how human beings thought before writing. Plato was among the few visionaries who saw this coming, and he was afraid that people would not “remember” the same way.
Like any technology, writing brought its own set of discriminating biases. We value people who write great novels over those who tell great stories orally. We prize reading comprehension above all else in primary and secondary education. The victims of these biases are those who, for whatever reason, have difficulties reading visually.
Building Voice Dream Reader, in many ways, is a personal journey in understanding all the different ways people consume the written word: it turns out that visually reading black 10 point font on white background is just one of many possible forms of consumption.
First I had to understand dyslexia, a fantastical condition in which letters on a page shimmer, float and change positions. For dyslexics, Voice Dream Reader provides synchronized text to speech such that the word spoken out loud is highlighted, helping the user to comprehend aurally and visually at the same time. With OpenDyslexic font, the letters don’t fly away as much. And dyslexics have subtly different color preferences, so Voice Dream lets each user choose from an infinite palette of colors for text and background.
Then, I learned about ADD/ADHD. Visual reading requires a lot of attention. Text to speech sets up a rigid pace for reading which scaffolds the reading process, while synchronized highlighting further improves focus. In addition, Voice Dream Reader has a Focused Reading Mode, which reduces the size of the text area to prevent the eyes from wondering off the text. The text scrolls automatically so the spoken word is always in the middle of the screen.
People who are completely blind need to read by sound or touch. Text to speech offers voice reading, but the user interface must also be entirely touch and voice driven. Apple has done a good job of making this easy for developers, but getting an app completely accessible takes a lot of work, which most developers don’t do. Even Amazon Kindle App just now became VoiceOver accessible, 3 years after it was first released on iOS. For Voice Dream Reader, I blindfolded myself to test the user interface for the blind. Also, being highly acute in hearing, the visually impaired have very personal preferences for the synthesized voice. Voice Dream Reader offers 62 high quality voices for each person to choose from. Many customers buy multiple voices to suit different kinds of text.
I learned how people with low vision read. They need large font size, so I increased the maximum font size to 70. They fluidly mix visual reading and audio reading, so Voice Dream Reader allows them to browse the text freely while listening, and use a simple gesture – two finger tap – to synchronize visual text with spoken text.
Besides these well-known segments, there’re some less common reading styles. Some customers turn off the sound and use text-to-speech entirely to set the pace of reading, even as a way to improve reading speed. People with brain injuries have visual perceptual challenges and memory/processing issues, and they comprehend better with my app. Then, some blind customers use Braille Displays attached to their iPhones, simply because Voice Dream Reader is so good at extracting pure text from so many different sources and file types.
Finally, my app is sometimes used as a general visual eBook reader because it’s fast. It does a full text search in War and Peace almost instantaneously.
For most of history, the written word has been the province of people with full visual linguistic faculty; those who lack it were often made to feel like outsiders. The digital age makes the written word even more of a primary way to convey information: it is increasingly hard to find a human being on the phone, so we’re left with email and websites.
Mobile devices, particularly iOS devices, made a lot of progress in advancing the needs of non-visual readers. But it’s not enough. App developers don’t make their apps accessible. OS level accessibility services like VoiceOver and Accessibility Zoom make software designed for visual readers just barely acceptable to others. Most of it feels like after thoughts rather than software fundamentally architected for different modes of information consumption. And this is not likely to change, because Apple or Amazon or Samsung will not compromise usability and increase cost for 80 or 90 percent of their customers to fully meet the needs of the 10 or 20% users with special needs.
For long running text, Voice Dream Reader lets each individual decide the best reading mode, whether it be purely visual, purely auditory, or any of the shades and colors in between. It fills a modest but important void in the larger mission of universal access for the written word.