Thursday, 22 June 2017

New Voices, by Dan Metcalf

I've been thinking a lot about audiobooks nowadays since talking to a friend of mine who is a postman. He listens to a lot, walking 4 hours a day which is the perfect way to consume talking books. But he did something I wasn't really aware of: he gets books via Google Books and sets their speakbot up to tell the story to him. I know Kindle did this waaaay back when they first launched, and my friend tells me that is how he started doing it, but lawyers got involved and argued that it contravines the talking book right in the contracts, when kindle had only paid for ebook rights. Or something. I'm vague on the details. 

So I tried it. is a site with great voices which sound, well, natural. Ish. Just cut and paste text and it will read it to you, in a variety of male, female, British, American, French, German voices and more (all hilariously nicknamed things like 'Bruce', 'Graham' and 'Audrey'). It works. Mostly. I also got the app for my phone (which comes with free auto-installed versions of Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes Stories) and the extension for my web browser which can read my emails to me.

But of course I am behind the times in all this. The Amazon Echo will already speak to you like your best (if slightly robotic) mate, and Google are hot on their heels with what is now called a 'Digital Assistant'. So what next? Well, the sky is the limit. How about an interactive story for the Echo, one that you can choose where the story goes? Or you can place yourself in the story and ask the characters questions? You can be the detective in the murder mystery. With artificial intelligence and natural sounding voices on the up, this should be possible very soon. It just needs the right combination of writers and programmers – thinking about it, it is essentially a text adventure like those of the 1980s but read out loud by the computer.
By Peter Langston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But just as iPhones surprised everyone with their ubiquitousness, and pushed the tablet revolution onwards, maybe the next big thing is not voice activated? Could it be Virtual Reality, gesture activated or linking directly to your neurons? Will it take place not via a speaker or a screen, or even a book, but centred in your own mind? The future is limitless.


Dan Metcalf is a writer in SW England. His new book, Codebusters, is out in July 2017.

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