The new Voice Dream Reader 4.0 update to be released soon (March 21, 2016)! Headstrong Nation Chairman, Larry Banks, Interviews Winston Chen, the developer of Voice Dream Reader and Writer.
For Winston Chen, what was initially a hobby has turned into a full-time job and passion.
Larry: OK! This is fantastic! So I guess I’m going to jump right in here. You live in Boston, right?
Larry: Let's go back to the beginning. How did Voice Dream get started for you? What inspired you to create this piece of Assistive Technology?
Winston: I would say it started accidentally, very accidentally. It goes back to 2011, five years ago now. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. My family and I took a year off and we went to live on a small island just north of the arctic circle in Norway, population 180. I Learned how to fish, to dry fish, to salt fish, and how to haul them into the boat.
But I am a software person, so when it got dark, (The sun went down at 2:30 PM) I wanted to occupy myself with something in the evenings. I spent my timecoding then, and had a simple idea that I had a lot more stuff to read than I have time to read it. I decided to build a text to speech app so I would have the ability to catch up on articles and whitepapers while I was driving or at the gym. It was mostly a hobby and didn’t think it would turn into anything.
Full Time Job
Winston: A few months later, Voice Dream Reader was a simple app available in the App Store. It was very rough, basic, with one voice and no word level highlighting. It could only read web articles, and it read PDF very poorly. At this point I thought I was finished and it was time to go back to fishing and dreaming of the next startup.
However, the e-mails started coming in. I don’t know how people found the app. I gradually realized that Voice Dream Reader was an important piece of assistive tech. Teachers of students with dyslexia and the visually impaired reached out and asked for more features. What was once a little hobby gradually turned into a full blown obsession. There were days where I could not leave the app as I was so busy.
Our year of living in Norway came to an end and my family and I headed back home to Boston. I began working on big data projects and the next startup. In my spare time, I continued working on the app. I found that I could not get away from it. It was becoming larger and larger.
The app started generating enough revenue to keep the lights on in the house and about four to five years later, I have found that working on Voice Dream Reader has become my full time job. What other job working in technology could give me this much personal satisfaction? My decision was to make Voice Dream my life, my career.
Voice Dream Writer
Larry: When did Voice Dream Writer come into the picture?
Winston: Voice Dream Writer was developed just over a year ago, in the Fall of 2014. I had the idea of creating a writing app based on feedback from customers who were doing their own writing somewhere else and then transferring the text in the little editing box within voice dream reader. They were attemptng to proofread their work by listening to it to detect mistakes. These users were actually using the product for a purpose it was not intended for. I realized there was a great need for this writing tool. I talked to some of my friends who were also users who would tell me, “I write, but it’s hard for me to proofread what I just wrote.”. That was where the idea of the writer was born. One of the luxuries of having my own business is that if an idea comes to me and I like it, I can pursue it. It took some time to create it and get it released, but it is available, and people seem to be liking and using it.
Larry: It is really powerful. Ben Foss turned me on to Voice Dream Reader. I had been using multiple apps across different platforms to address my reading requirements. Many of them were clunky and I was not happy with the voices on them. Ben encouraged me to use Voice Dream as he told me it can work in many realms, across many platforms, so it serves as an “All in one”. I downloaded it to my iPhone and after using it said, “This is incredible!”
A Universal Reader
Winston: The goal is to have a universal reader. We just don’t read Bookshare books or PDF’s or web articles. I thought to myself, "Wouldn’t it be nice for your reading to get done in a single environment that you have full control over?" This was one of the ideas behind the development of the product.
I met Ben Foss at Landmark College when he was speaking about his book. After the event, we chatted and I introduced him to Voice Dream Reader as he wasn’t using it back then. This was about a year and a half ago. I didn’t hear from him for a while. Later, on Twitter, I saw a tweet from him which read, “Love Voice Dream, Live it, Love it!” So it turned out that after we met he decided to give it a try and really liked it!
Larry: Yes! I think it has had a large impact on the dyslexic community which is related to what this conversation is about. I am the Chairman of Headstrong Nation, and as an organization run by dyslexics and for dyslexics, we are interested in technology that will help the adult dyslexic to become successful. As I had mentioned before, Voice Dream Reader is a piece of assistive technology which is in a lot of ways, an “All in one.” It helps us. Most of the time we are running between so many different apps. For a long time, there weren’t that many that were available to us. Those that we did use were not very portable, and the voices were often terrible!
Winston: If you are using text to speech for GPS it really doesn’t matter how good the voice is as long as you can understand it. But, if you are spending hours every day reading, listening to a TTS voice, you really want to have a personal affinity toward it, which is why having a lot of choices in voices is really important and that was something that I put a lot of effort into very early on in the product.
Larry: Managing workflow for some of can be an issue. I’m dyslexic but in academia. I need to be able to work as efficiently as possible on tasks such as reviewing student papers, and reading a high volume of emails. I receive about 50 emails per day. The short ones are easy to get through but the longer ones which come from my Dean, and others, can get quite involved with ideas and theories that I really need to be able to “lock on” to. Therefore, I really need to fully listen to them and to hear them in a clear, cogent fashion. I like to do as much of my work as I can while I’m moving. I’m rather slow with the writing but I find my time when I can. The ability to read papers and check on my email by listening with my ears while on the move is really helpful to me, and having a decent voice on my reader makes a big difference in me being able to effectively manage these tasks.
Winston: Yes! These voices, I found that they almost become your friends. You get used to them. I also work with the visually impaired community, and as you can imagine for a lot of vision impaired individuals the TTS voices become their buddies. They get used to them and don’t want to change them. Many people got used to the older, very robotic voices but they like them because they have grown accustomed to using them.
Larry: Listening becomes part of a pattern. Once you understand the voice then it becomes clearer for you and easier for you to listen to it at a variety of different speeds. This is another thing which is really nice about your Voice Dream Reader. You have a greater variability in voice speeds compared to other systems which is very important if you must listen at a high speed to get through a lot of material.
Winston: People may need different speeds for different items that they may be reading, for example, a slower rate of speech for a research paper, and a quicker rate for reading a novel like Harry Potter. In the end, it is all about people reading more efficiently and the small features within Voice Dream reader help individuals achieve this. Voice Dream is available in iOS and Android. The Android version is not as “feature rich” as the iOS version that I’ve written, but the Android developer is working on this. The app is available in 24 different languages. Virtually every major language around the world is supported by the Voice Dream Reader.
Larry: That is fantastic! So it is truly an international product!
Larry: So where are you going with this? I think it is a great app for my mobile device. I’m looking at the writer. I would sure love to get this writer on my lap top!
Huge Update - Voice Dream Reader 4.0
Winston: As always, as you can imagine, I find I have too much to do, and not enough time. Right now I’m working on huge update to the Voice Dream Reader app version 4.0., which has been an all-consuming project for me over the past year. It’s huge in the sense that I’m trying to provide many features people have asked for and I want to roll it into a single update. Beta testing has started and the projected release date of the update is March 21, 2016.
One new feature is the ability to look at e-books, HTML files, and WORD docs in their original layouts. In the current app, for everything except for PDF, the app extracts the text from document and then basically throws the document away so you can listen to the text. But, for a lot of students, that was not good enough because the original material might contain images. So right now with this new PDF support, you can flip back and forth between a pure text view and the original PDF view if you want to look at the pictures, and this now carries forward with every document type, which is a big deal particularly in education. A lot of Bookshare books have images now, even children’s books contain images, and those obviously would not work well if you were not able to store and show the images. So that is one major area. The second feature is synchronization across multiple devices so you have loaded one file on your iPad it gets synchronized to your iPad and to your multiple devices. They all stay in sync.
There is another feature I am really excited about and I have been working on it for a while with dyslexia researcher, Matthew Schneps of MIT, formerly of Harvard. What Matthew discovered is that when you listen to text to speech with highlighting (imagining the highlighting cursor as a Pac Man that eats away the words) each word basically disappears from the screen as it is spoken. In fact, even before it is spoken the word is gone. When this happens, you are forced to read visually ahead of the sound, and then the sound then catches up with you a fraction of a second later.
What he found was that this drives your attention forward and it gives your brain two passes at reading, where the first pass is your visual reading, and the second pass is your audio reading. As you gradually turn up the speed, almost everyone, those with dyslexia or not, can double their reading speed with virtually no loss of comprehension. Matthew has dyslexia himself and he is now reading at roughly double the speed of the average neuro-typical reader. I am really excited about this new feature and I cannot wait for people to get their hands on it and try it out!
Larry: Well, I am very excited too! I am familiar with Matt’s work. I was very excited to find a dyslexic researcher working on this kind of research. I saw a blog on your website about how he worked on the spacing and alignment characteristics of text, and how he found that this was an easier way for dyslexics to handle the information.
Winston: In Voice Dream Reader, I give people the option to change all manner of spacing and margins. This really makes a huge difference.
Larry: For many of us, reading up and down is easier for us than from side to side.
Winston: Right. Finding the beginning of the next line is hard for the eyes when travelling across the page. In Voice Dream there is a mode where you do not need to do that. The spoken word is always in the middle, and the page is auto-scrolled every time a line advances. You do not have to find where the beginning of the next line is. It is always on the same line.
Some of the other features… We have a brand new UI (User Interface) and if you have a document/PDF file that has a cover image, you can look at it in a grid just like you would in kindle or iBooks. The app also has a finger-reading mode which I am very excited about, because for a lot of young readers, the feedback is that the text to speech is still too fast even at its slowest speed. The younger readers like to set their own pace by sliding their finger under the word and to advance at the speed that their finger is moving similiar to how parents and teachers show children how to follow text while reading.
Larry: Yes! They are tracking it themselves with their own finger. That is fantastic!
Winston: Yes, there is a lot of cool stuff!
For the future… I have been thinking about a product for those who cannot afford remedial programs. People with financial means can hire private tutors for remedial programs. But there are also a lot of people who cannot afford these programs. So I am thinking whether it would be possible to create an app, which is not a reader or productivity tool but a product which is more of a teaching tool. It would be one where we capture the best of our knowledge on dyslexia and reading so it can teach reading in a way that is effective, but obviously very low cost.
Larry: I am sure you have spoken to Matt about that.
Adult Literacy XPRIZE
Winston: Yes. I am working on this with Matt and a couple of other developers. We are attempting to do this within the context of the “XPRIZE”. There is an adult literacy XPRIZE that’s going on right now. We are a team and have signed up. The challenge is about how to teach illiterate adults to read. Our hypothesis is that many illiterate adults, in fact, have dyslexia. If we can be effective with this population, the same set of tools and techniques may work with children too.
Larry: Could you tell me a little more about this XPRIZE?
Most of the XPRIZE's we know about involve sending a man into space and future techno-stuff. This is an XPRIZE for adult literacy. The competition is open to any team who wants to build an app that they can put into the hands of adults who are illiterate. The prize will measure the participants’ literacy score at the Beginning of trial and then after one year they will measure it again. Whichever team can affect the largest increase in these test scores wins the prize. It began in January and the development period ends at the end of the year. This is a project which I want to devote some time to.
Larry: Has your involvement in Voice Dream Reader increased your interest in general in Assistive Technologies? You’ve grown to becomea bit of an assistive technology guru.
Winston: I wouldn’t say I was a guru! I help out in an Assistive Technology class at MIT. I do attend conferences to learn about the latest thinking. It is definitely an interesting, fascinating, and rewarding field. Rather than building a game that keeps people busy while they’re riding on the subway, I am developing products that make a big difference in the daily lives of people. It is definitely a field I would like to stay in.
Larry: It is definitely a rewarding field! You have found an area that is in the midst of great change right now. Technology is actually at a place where it can begin to really make some differences for groups of people, particularly dyslexics, and you have caught that wave just as it is really developing. I think these tools are going to be the wave of the future for young dyslexics moving forward. Voice Dream Reader is very affordable compared to other larger format tools, and reading applications on mobile devices make a big difference.
Winston: As a society we will probably have less and less space for paper. There will always be a place for Voice Dream Reader as a highly tailored reading experience. The future development will enable others to read more and more types of reading materials, and to allow people to read in many different ways, like the speed reading technique that will be available in the new version.
I also forgot to mention that in the new version it will make reading webpages a lot easier because in Safari, there is now going to be an extension – “Save in Voice Dream”. You can save it as a PDF file which keeps all the photographs, or you can just save the article as pure text, and then choose save and open Voice Dream right there so you can read it right away. That should be helpful.
Larry: Yes that would be. So that is going to be based in the mobile devices right?
Winston: That is correct, on iPad and iPhone. It will come as a free update for people who already have the app except for one feature, a synchronization which will be an in app purchase. Besides that, the other features are free.
Larry: That is fantastic! Is there anything else you would like to share with us about the future?
Winston: I am actually excited about wearables. I think this is going to be the next generation of assistive technology. Not sure what products are ultimately going to be successful on these new platforms, but one thing I can promise is that Voice Dream will be there, once we understand it, and we will build products for these new platforms.
Larry: That is fantastic! Thank you so much Winston, for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us and for the great products that you have developed. I hope to speak to you in the future about the new things that you will be exploring. Headstrong Nation is a group of adult dyslexics and we are very keen on learning about the different types of technology which may support us as we go forward in different areas. Voice Dream is one of the strong ones which can make a huge difference in helping us to keep up with and be productive in the technological society that we live in.
Winston: Thank you, Larry. All the best to you and Headstrong Nation!
The Voice Dream Reader Update 4.0 will be released very soon (March 21, 2016)! Visit the Voice Dream Website at http://www.voicedream.com/ You may purchase the app in the App Store for iOS devices and in the Google Play Store for Android devices.
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