Reading aloud: merging audio and text just got a lot easier
You may know that the modern EPUB3 standard has an inbuilt ability to hold audio and video, but one of the most intriguing aspects of EPUB3 that you may have overlooked is ‘Read-aloud’. This technique, sometimes called ‘media overlays’, combines a spoken audio track with accurate timing information usually used to highlight words on the page in time with the spoken audio.
It is important to note that this is NOT the same as synthetic text-to-speech. Read-aloud uses a pre-recorded audio track and allows for a more ‘immersive’ listening experience. TTS is important for accessibility but it just does not interpret the text like a good human reader can. Read-aloud ebooks are currently most popular with children’s illustrated fiction and for language learning education but they may have other uses too. They are claimed to be more cognitive and assistive. Scientific studies showed learners exposed to visual and aural stimulation retain more info than just reading or listening alone. Also, reading whilst also listening has been proven useful for mitigating reading disabilities such as dyslexia. Combining read-aloud features with the beautifully illustrated, well designed and edited pages of fixed layout EPUB3 standard makes for an excellent reading experience. Adding background soundtracks, animations and other interactive elements is all possible in fixed layout EPUB3 if desired. The dazzling attraction of any shiny tablet device seems to be like catnip for most children (and some parents alike) and I would much prefer my daughters spend their screen time within a professionally published book than most of the dubious apps that are aimed at them. Actually, read-aloud can also be used to play audio at a correct time without highlighting words and we have used it to sync text and visuals with music. Also with our ebook creation software CircularFLO we can also highlight hand-drawn and scanned artworks. Award winning children’s publishers Nosy Crow did just that for a series of highly illustrated children’s books and said “Working with CircularFLO we’ve managed to produced beautiful, unique editions.” Apple have supported read-aloud for a long time in their free iBooks reader app which is now available for the Mac OS and comes pre-installed on every new iOS device and the free Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) is catching up fast too. Adobe’s desktop reader app had been woeful in the past but is now showing much more promise. The latest version of their reader will and now support EPUB3 and an impressive amount of the EPUB3 features including read-aloud. ADE came to the iPad late last year and ADE was released to the growing Android tablet community just last week. Kobo among others also have read-aloud support in reading apps and there are more readers coming through based on the excellent opensource web based EPUB3 reader Readium.