A few years back a gentleman with a reading disability came to IPAT, needing some way to read the manuals, parts boxes, forms and signage in the shop where he was going to work after graduating from college. He was already making use of text-to-speech (TTS) technology with a computer, software, and scanner to read his text books aloud to him , but that was never going to fly in the shop with nowhere to perch that giant set-up. Not to mention that some of the items were not exactly “scanable”. He also did not want to call attention to himself with his assistive technology.
Back then we recommended that he try the kReader Mobile, an adapted multi-function cellphone with a camera, optical character recognition (OCR) software, and a speech engine. This device allows one to take a picture of most text, have that picture rendered with the OCR engine, and then have it read aloud, all on the same unit—no computer or scanner required. The kReader, as seen here, works well for many text situations, but it cost around $1500. This device is still on the market; however, today, we also have other options to consider.
For our blog this week, I investigated many TTS apps for Apple (iOS) mobile devices, and discovered very few apps which allow control of the built-in camera, contain an OCR engine, AND also have a built-in speech engine. I found two apps that I felt were good enough to offer as options for the people we work with here at IPAT, ZoomReader ($19.99) and Prizmo ($9.99-plus in-app voice purchase for $2.99). These apps are suggested only on the latest iOS device upgrades, the iPhone 5 and iPod Touch, 5th generation (5G). The latest iPads 3, 4, and Mini would work, as well, but are not as portable. For this blog, I experimented with apps on the iPod Touch 5G.
If you tried ZoomReader in the past like I did, and it did not work for you, I suggest you try it again. The latest iOS device upgrade and latest app upgrades have really improved the text recognition. ZoomReader was designed for someone with vision loss and exhibits a very simple user interface. You can change a few things like the size of the text, the rate of speech, and the text highlight colors. Once it is reading aloud, you can stop and start the speech, but from what I can tell there is no way to fast forward or start in a different place other than at the beginning.
Prizmo’s interface is a more complex app with options that include the ability to take a picture with your voice and the option of picture editing prior to running it through the OCR engine. The one really helpful feature that Prizmo has that ZoomReader lacks, is the ability to fast forward/reverse the speech output. In addition, the Prizmo app allows you to benefit from the “Speak Selection” Accessibility feature of the iOS, so you can select the text anywhere and have it spoken.
Prizmo was designed as a general use app for business, home office, and school, but I believe it would work well for someone with a reading disability. With VoiceOver on, it may also work for someone with vision loss, but it does not have the ability to change the text highlight colors. Prizmo also received an upgrade last month, and it is definitely worth another look if you had a bad experience previously, as I did.
I tried these apps with the iPod Touch 5G mounted and handheld with the same piece of text. On a whim, I also tried them by taking a picture with the iPod native camera app and then imported that same picture into each of the apps. You can see all of the videos at the IPAT YouTube Page.
Both apps did a terrific job in recognizing the text when the iPod was mounted; however, they both gave me mixed results when holding the device in my hand depending on the lighting, what I was scanning, and how jittery I was from too much caffeine. The results in the videos and off-camera ranged from near perfect recognition to recognition of only a few letters. My “Whim” proved to be beneficial, as I found that with both apps, using the native camera app, brought the most consistent, accurate results, especially when holding the device in my caffeinated hand.
Is there a portable, affordable option for text-to-speech for someone with a reading disability, and does it work? YES! I would love to hear your experiences and tips!