Voice Dream Reader -- henceforth VDR or Voice Dream -- is the most game-changing product in years for blind and low-vision readers. It costs next to nothing and completely reinvents the experience of reading by voice. I could not be more thrilled to have discovered it; so many thanks to Sassy Outwater-Wright at Massachusetts Association for the Blind for sharing this amazing product with me!
VDR is an app; I use it on my iPhone X. There is a free version but if you take the plunge and just buy the $10 full version, it will save you a step as once you try this product you are definitely going to want the full set of capabilities. The app install process is the usual one on the iPhone.
Once the app is installed, you can use it to read the Quick Start guide for the software, which I recommend you do. The app comes with a copy of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice, a novel which predates Mickey Mouse so is off copyright and can therefore be distributed freely. Go ahead and read some; it's good! To read, all you do is:
-Click on the title, which brings you into the book
-Tap the standard-shaped right-pointing-triangle "Play" icon in the bottom middle of the screen; this will start the book reading aloud, and the text flowing over the screen. If you don't see the Play button, tap the screen, tapping the screen with one finger toggles between showing the controls and hiding them, so anytime you don't see the controls, do a single-finger tap and they'll come up.
Why is VDR so good for reading books? In the past I downloaded the text of books off Bookshare -- see my writeup of Bookshare if you aren't already a user! Then I would use Kurzweil 1000 (expensive but great) or TextAloud (Less-nice interface but very inexpensive) to turn the text into a .mp3 file. That is to say, instead of 300 pages of text, I would now have a sound file that was, say, six hours long. That file would play on a computer or other device just like a song, but instead of the sound of the Rolling Stones performing Gimme Shelter, what you hear instead is a robotic voice reading the book for hours on end.
I would then move the sound file onto a device, usually an inexpensive Sansa Clip Zip MP3 player, because that particular device is one of the few that handles such files the right way, which is to say: if you are reading a book, and you skip over to another book, it holds your place when you come back to the first book. iPods and other devices I've used almost never do this, or at least not without great effort. In theory it is possible to copy the mp3 file into Apple's iBook feature and have the book read aloud by your phone, but the process is extremely cumbersome as best I can tell. I searched for hours online and can't find a way of doing it that is easy for the vision-impaired. So, as i was saying, I listened instead on my Sansa. This had several problems:
1) It meant carrying an extra device, which is annoying as I have a lot of gear already (as can be seen on the rest of this site!).
2) The device, though wonderful, had a couple of small annoying bugs I won't detail here that were a minor inconvenience.
3) The device was built for songs not books so didn't do Rewind very well. What you want on a book (or video) is a button that jumps you back 10 seconds or so; this was one of the killer features of the original Tivo. It frequently happens when trying to read that non-book objects of the class known as "human beings" come along and interrupt. Such interruptions are often welcome! But when returning to the book, it's important to be able to start just a bit before you left off, and the Sansa, while able to rewind of course, doesn't do it elegantly.
4) On the Sansa, THERE'S NO WRITTEN TEXT!!! This is no longer a huge deal to me as I can't see as much as I once did. But, first, there was a time when I'd have loved to have a mobile device that showed me the text of the book in a high-contrast font because I could then have read books by eye. Even now it's nice to be able to look at the text sometimes, to decode a confusing phrase or see how an unusual word is spelled. For example, I am now reading the exceptionally entertaining novel "After On" by Rob Reid. He postulates a near future with a red-hot social media platform I thought was, in an amusing parody of Silicon Valley naming, called "Flutter." But it turns out that, in a far _more_ amusing parody of Silicon Valley naming, the network is called "Phlutter"! Upshot is, it's great to be able to see, or hear, or see _and_ hear.
5) Sansa has stopped making the version of the Clip Zip I use and the new version of the device does not really get it done for book reading, so I am reduced to buying up old ones on eBay and Amazon. Hey, don't you go beating me to the last one out there! Just kidding, it's all good now, because we have Voice Dream.
Honestly, there's not that much more to say. VDR reads the book and shows you the words at the same time. VDR can also read you web pages, pdf documents, or pretty much anything else with text. I don't use it all that often for text other than books because Speak Screen for web pages/emails/texts and iBooks plus Speak Screen for pdfs are already quite good and often a bit more convenient than VDR. For very long articles it _is_ worth using VDR; just hit the bottom-center-of-Safari "Share" icon and then choose "Save to Voice Dream Reader." You then have to click "Save" near the bottom of the screen, a bit right of center, at which point the article is saved to VDR just like a book. Maybe I'll write more about non-book uses of VDR another time; this post is mostly for book lovers!
Which reminds me: how does one get a book into VDR from Bookshare? In truth the bookshare interface for smartphones leaves much to be desired. There needs to be an app, or if there is an app, someone needs to tell me where to find it! The site needs to stop logging me out constantly; it's really hard for blind people to type in passwords and such; I shouldn't have to do it three times a day on a site for the blind! More generally, if there isn't an app, the site needs to be better designed for smartphone users, because VDR is so good that I suspect most vision-impaired people are going to switch from accessing Bookshare via computer to doing so via phone.
But the VDR-Bookshare link is terrific, super-easy. Log into www.bookshare.org on your phone. Use the search function to find the book you want. Click "download" next to the book title. That will take you to a list of your recent downloads. Either immediately or after a minute or so it will say "Available" next to the new book. Tap the word "Available" and you'll see a new page with the book title and the words "Open In Voice Dream Reader." Touch those words and the book will be added to your list of books in VDR. It's really slick.
A few notes on super-useful features of VDR:
1) To go back, swipe left with 2 fingers. Or hit the rewind icon. Or click rewind on the remote on your headset. How far back does it go? You can pick!!! By default it goes back a paragraph, but I currently have it set to go back 15 seconds. Great stuff.
2) Let me mention again the hugely important fact that VDR can be controlled by your headphone remote. Play, pause, rewind, fast forward (as well as volume of course). So you can be reading a book while on the treadmill and go back to re-read a passage without taking the phone out of your pocket.
3) It has an incredibly easy-to-use sleep timer. Just long-press the play key and it pops up and you can choose 30 minutes or whatever. Sometimes I like to fall asleep listening to a book through my headphones so I use this all the time.
4) Of course you can control font size and colors. But here's something you might not expect: you can control, with simple two-finger pinches, how much of the screen is taken up by the words. At one extreme, there is a full phone-screen worth of words on there. At the other, you can just have a few words in the middle of the screen to focus your attention, with acres of blank space around them. I believe it can even do the thing where it just flashes one word at a time in front of you so you don't have to use your eyes at all, though I haven't tested this. Apparently there are good studies saying that (fully sighted) people can double their reading speed by having words flashed in this way, rather than having to track across the lines like a typewriter carriage. I can't vouch for that, but it seems plausible. In any case, that leads naturally to the issue of:
6) Speed. You can set the speed, and in multiple ways. There's a default voice and speed, and then if you change it for a particular book it will remember that when you come back to that book. So if I'm reading a difficult academic work I'll slow down, whereas if I'm giving a re-read to the first Harry Potter book I can speed things up! And of course you can slow down temporarily because you're tired or whatever. That's a big deal; with my old method I created the book at whatever speed I chose, and then I was stuck reading at that speed unless I re-made the audio file. So if I made a fast recording of a new novel and then discovered the book was more challenging than I anticipated, I would usually just read it too fast and miss stuff as remaking the book was too much of a hassle.
Now, everyone is comfortable with different speeds, you have to find what feels right for you. Then as you gain comfort, you can slowly push the speed up. But let me take a moment here to discuss speed and voices. Everyone who uses speech synthesizers has their personal favorites. I have been using Kurzweil 1000 for almost 20 years, and the default voice when I bought the software was the cleverly named "Reed" by ETI-Eloquence Corp. Reed and I have become very close, despite the highly artificial, robotic sound of his voice. Reed has read me many hundreds of books, and he will always have a place in my heart!
A newer, but still established, relationship in my reading life is with the IOS voice called Samantha. Samantha is not the voice of Siri, but it is the default voice for the Speak Screen feature on iPhone, so anytime I do a two-finger swipe down on Safari or email or whatever to have my phone read the text to me, it is Samantha's voice I hear.
New synthesizers are always coming onto the market. I have friends who rave about the "Will" and "Paul" voices. Online I have seen folks express their undying love for Salli. I have tried all these and many others. A bunch come pre-loaded onto the VDR app, others you can easily buy from within the app for around $2-5 each. This is not gouging; VDR does not create these voices, they are made by and sold by other companies, so don't be mad at the VDR people for what seems like an add-on charge!
What can I report from my voice excursions? Well, again, it's a matter of personal preference. But I've never let that stop me from having an opinion before! Samantha is the best, and it is not close. Salli, which is apparently a very advanced voice and which as I say many folks adore, is nearly incomprehensible to me at high speeds. Paul and Will are good. But Samantha is working on another level. Sassy of MAB, who is an audio engineer, says the key is that many millions of iPhone users are constantly sending notes to Apple about bad pronunciations so that Samanthat is constantly improving, and faster than other voice engines. Anyway, I think it is far, far clearer at high speeds than other voices. Of course I have a lot of practice with Samantha because of Speak Screen, and maybe I'd feel the same about Paul or Salli if I used them enough. But for now, it's all Samantha for me.
How fast is fast? Again, you have to see for yourself. But, a quick story: when I got VDR, I had some conversations with other users about voices, and in the process they told me how fast they were going, which was a lot faster than I was reading. Now, reading is not a race, and I have no desire to compete with these fine folks. But it did make me wonder if I could maybe go faster if I tried. I'd started using Kurzweil/Reed at around 220 words per minute and had climbed to 340 wpm, where I'd remained for years. Anyway, I started playing with Samantha on VDR and, long story short, I'm at 420 now with hopes to go into the high 400s before I stall. We shall see!
When I got VDR it had a small but exceptionally-irritating-to-me bug that I was planning to write about. But people online said the development team was highly responsive, so I emailed them about it. They explained that they'd heard of this bug but had had trouble reproducing it, a frustrating problem we've all had with garage mechanics and similar. I wrote back with more detail. And then, to my absolute astonishment, they wrote back and said the problem would be fixed in a day or two, which indeed it was. Imagine if the whole world worked like that! Easily the best customer service I have ever experienced in software. Kudos to the entire team; I daresay this willingness to listen to the customers and act on their suggestions is a key reason the product is so extraordinary.
One last note: although the focus here is on the blind and almost-blind, I'm hearing from more and more people who are fully sighted and are using voice technology like Audible and VDR. Some are using sight and sound together, some use it as a way to read work or study materials while taking care of other tasks like driving or cleaning. I foresee a future in which apps like VDR are on the phones of most people, not just the vision impaired. Which would be great; advances come a lot more quickly when there are billions of users rather than millions. So, please spread the word about Voice Dream Reader not only to others with vision issues, but to everyone!