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Toward The Talking Book of The Future

Editor's Note: Paul Thiele is the Director of the Crane Resource Centre for persons requiring alternatives to print. Located at the University of British Columbia, the Crane Centre has been a leader in the provision of service to blind students. Crane has been selected as one of the very few sites world-wide which will test a prototype for a new kind of audiobook. Here's what Paul Thiele has to say about it.

On August 23, 1996, I travelled to Toronto to attend a forum on future audiobook technologies organized by the CNIB Library for the Blind in conjunction with the World Blind Union Convention. Fred Poon, Manager of the British Columbia Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired and I attended six presentations from key international developers of new talking book technologies.

Audiobooks have undergone a number of changes since their introduction in the 1930s. The long-playing record, recorded at 33 1/3 RPM was the first revolutionary breakthrough. It allowed fifteen minutes of recording on each side of the record. Compared to the 78 RPM used for music recording, the LP was a truly remarkable step forward. Later talking books used recordings at 16 2/3 RPM and 8 1/3 RPM.

The next truly innovative change in audiobooks was the development of the Phillips-style tape cassette. By using slower playback speeds and four-track recordings, it became possible to record up to six hours of material on one cassette. This was a giant step forward, but two serious problems remained.

One of the presenters at the forum, Kjell Hansson of the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille, described the problem with a very colourful analogy. He said that reading an audiobook for the blind on a cassette is a little like a sighted person trying to read a novel printed on a roll of bathroom tissue. The process can best be accomplished if one reads from beginning to end; finding a specific passage or page is virtually impossible, and the tissue paper is almost as fragile and vulnerable to breakage as a tape cassette.

The need for radical change in the audiobook is underscored by predictions that the Phillips cassette may be phased out altogether within the next eight to ten years.

Response to these issues by the producers of talking books has been somewhat slow and disorganized. There have been a number of impressive research and development efforts from a number of sources, but there has been virtually no unanimity on the nature of the solution. There has also been no major funding effort to support development of one universal format. With the clock running out on the tape cassette, this is highly alarming.

The forum brought together presentations (and in many cases demonstrations) from:

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the U.S. Library of Congress.

The DAISY system, developed by Labyrinten Data AB, Sweden, on behalf of the Swedish Talking Book and Braille Library.

The PLEXTALK Programmable CD Playback device, developed by a Japanese electronics firm.

The Digital Talking Book Reader, a software product being developed by a Quebec company connected to the Institut Nazareth ET Louis Braille.

The Digital Audio Project, a dual medium speech and e-text combination developed recently by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic Incorporated.

The IBM Digital Library Project, a complete audiobook production, storage medium and distribution analysis produced by IBM Germany on behalf of the Danish Library for the Blind, Copenhagen.

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the US Library of Congress-Technology Assessment and Research Program

John Cookson, Head of the engineering section, reported on a number of commercial software and coding programs he had reviewed for the purpose of structuring audiobook material. Apparently, nothing was successful.

NLS administers a research and development budget of several million dollars annually. In the past, it has been responsible for the development of the 4-track extended playback cassette format and equipment, the flexible disk (record) format for expendable materials such as magazines. NLS has also been responsible for many other innovations in audiobook and Braille formats and equipment.

Mr. Cookson reported that NLS does not have a definitive format, direction, or system in mind. NLS continues to consider various options.

The DAISY System

The Swedish Talking Book and Braille Library, one of the most progressive producers and disseminators of alternative format material, commissioned abyrinten Data AB to develop a sound recording and coding software package to permit the structuring of materials recorded by human readers. Once appropriately structured, audio books would then provide the user with random access to sections of the book by page number, chapter heading, key word, subject, or any other access point chosen by the book's producer. DAISY stands for Digital Audio-Based Information Systems. It is based on digital technology using personal computers. Designer goals were to transfer the print books logical structure to the audiobook user and to permit easy random access to the material; to provide alternate media users equal or better access to books than is available to readers of regular print; to develop a system independent of distribution media to permit easy adaptation to a variety of distribution technologies.

The system would permit books to be read with compressed speech. It would also allow fifteen to thirty hours of reading time on one CD. The developers hope that older recordings can be re-done using this new format. It is believed that this system will be particularly useful for recording dictionaries, encyclopedias, cook books, home repair manuals, and other reference works as well as text books for students.


Mr. Motoaki Kaneko, Vice President, and Mr. Tatsuo Nishizawa, Manager, of Shinano Kenshi Company Limited, gave a presentation on the PLEXTALK unit which promises to be the player for the next generation of talking books.

PLEXTALK is a CD ROM player with a built in speech module and a ten-key touch pad. The prototype is a table top model, but the production model will be portable. It will play audiobooks that have been recorded on structured CD's with the same options as a personal computer. It provides playback of fifteen to thirty hours on a single standard CD with full random access opportunities. The suggested production model cost will be around $200 US. The PLEXTALK was designed to work with the DAISY system.

The Digital Talking Book Reader

Giles Pepin, Director, Visuaide Company, Montreal, in association with the Institut Nazareth ET Louis Braille, presented a software based approach to recording audiobooks. The Visuaide system will concentrate on French language commands and will most likely use a recordable CD as well.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD)

RFBD is possibly the world's largest producer and distributor of recorded text and vocational support material. Less than a year ago it began developing a most unique and highly impressive dual purpose structuring program. The program combines a regularly recorded audiobook with an electronic text version. The end user is able to slip back and forth between the reader's voice recording and the electronic text read in synthetic speech. This permits checking on spelling, punctuation, and structure, while still maintaining the reality of a live verbal reading.

RFBD plans to use CD's playable on personal computers with speech output. The agency hopes to begin offering books in this new format to their clients shortly, along with their cassette and electronic text format.

The Danish Library for the Blind Digital Project

Dr. Hans Schumacher and Mr. Uwe Fischer, of IBM Germany, presented the work they are doing for the Danish Library for the Blind in Copenhagen. They are designing a comprehensive library digisation project. This involves the production of digital audiobooks and the re-mastering of previously recorded books. They are also planning a master storage system, automated circulation, as well as plans for distribution of audio and Braille material by E-mail directly to the home PC's of clients.

This plan may sound futuristic, but it is realistic and doable even with today's technology. Blind and visually impaired readers in Scandinavian countries have been exposed to a number of technological firsts including national newspapers in digital format delivered to home computers by radio transmission. Library patrons with this type of previous technology experience will likely be very amenable to these new developments.


The forum demonstrated that technologies are available now which will considerably enhance the recorded audiobook. The emphasis in current research and development is on transcription performed by a human narrator which has been structured to permit programmed random access to significant parts of the book. Patrons are requesting access to pages, subjects, chapters, key words or other points which will equalize their access to the printed word.

Most producers of new technology believe that the talking books of the future will be recorded on CD's. There is the likelihood that at least one highly economical playback system will soon be available.

Because technology is changing so rapidly, and because no one has yet agreed on a universal design, most developers are designing material which will be adaptable to market changes.

There is some fear that the proposed new audiobook technology will be applied to only text books. In order for a technology to be successful it must be accepted universally. The last thing audiobook users or producers need is another format which is incompatible with others.

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