Text-to-speech computer programs have been touted as an aid to the visually impaired or as a way for the busy executive to listen to e-mails instead of reading them.
The early efforts had a common flaw, though. The "voices" sounded like a drunken monotone in a vaguely Russian accent. Listening to even five minutes of it convinced many that machines should only talk to other machines.
But with an increase in processing power, text-to-speech programs have improved. MoneyTree Software of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has a program you can try for free called ReadPlease 2000. It features four voices, identified as Mary, Marilyn, Mike and Sam.
If you have a slow Internet connection, the 6.9-megabyte download is going to take a while.
Installation is simple. You can adjust the speed and pitch of the voices, and the user interface is a delight.
The voices read with a tone and inflection that is much closer to real speech than past efforts. And the software is smart enough to recognize state post office abbreviations and pronounce the whole state name. (Oddly enough, it flubs Canadian province abbreviations.)
The free version will handle files of 16,000 bytes at a time, which is more than enough for most of us. If you like what you see and want some more bells and whistles, MoneyTree offers them in ReadPlease NetPro, for $49.95. With the commercial version's upgrade, you can use a speech check, store text as a .wav file and customize pronunciation of individual words.
Developers tout this software as environmentally friendly because you don't have to print out pages of text, and health-friendly because you can relax while listening. But I found it tough to see it as more than a clever toy. Your experience might be different.
Since the interface highlights each word as it's being spoken, it might help beginning readers, but a lot of children's software already does that.
If you use it a lot at work, consider earphones or learn to ignore angry stares - or worse - from fellow cubicle jockeys.
System requirements include 16 MB of RAM and Pentium 133 or better and Windows 95, 98 or NT, according to the Web site. It ran just fine on Windows Me.
On the Net:
ReadPlease 2000 is available at the Web site http://www.readplease.com
Questions and comments welcome. Larry Blasko, AP, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020-1666. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.