By John M. Williams I've long been a fan of Kurzweil Products. The company's assistive technology is generally well designed and among the best products around. So when I heard that Ray Kurzweil's company had released a new version of its text-to-speech software, I was eager to try it out. After putting the Kurzweil 3000 Version 5.0 through its paces, I am pleased to report that the company has not broken its winning streak.
The program reads aloud electronic or scanned text with a remarkably human-sounding synthetic voice. It also takes the extra step of highlighting each word as the program speaks it. That makes the Kurzweil 3000 an effective tool for teaching people with learning disabilities to read better. And it reads Web-page text like a champ. In fact, I think every school and employer in the country should have at least one copy.
Here's why. The U.S. Education Dept. reports that in 1997-'98, nearly 3 million learning-disabled students were enrolled in primary and secondary schools and colleges. Other estimates place the number of Americans with learning disabilities at anywhere from 5 million to 30 million. The reason for those widely differing estimates is that there is no set definition of a learning disability.
Whatever the figure, this much is clear: Most people with learning disabilities aren't availing themselves of the available technology. Properly used, the Kurzweil program can make a difference, either at school or work, for people such as John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, who is dyslexic.
FOOLPROOF FEATURES. I test drove this program for three weeks and was impressed by its simplicity of use, its versatile array of features, and with the human-sounding quality of its voice. The program is easy-to-install on a Windows 2000 operating system. You can also use it with Windows 95, 98, and an NT operating system. I placed a disk into the disk drive and a CD into the CD-ROM drive. Six clicks and 10 minutes later, I was good to go.
All of the features -- file, edit, scan, view, tools, reference features -- can be pulled down from the top bar. In no time flat, I was performing a slew of different word-processing activities using speech recognition. Any person well grounded in Microsoft's Windows programs will find this program easy to use. It was a snap for me set up a customized task bar that would let me quickly find the functions I used most often.
Better yet, this is a text-to-speech program with all the rough edges sanded down. Take jane, for example, the name of one of the program's speaking voices. Jane has a sonorous British accent. You want Jane to pronounce words with a Southern lilt? No problem. The program can switch to accommodate users accustomed to regional inflections. And unlike most metallic-sounding text-to-speech programs that become garbled when running at high speeds, faster readings do not diminish the Kurzweil 3000's clarity. Jane read to me at a speed of 450 words per minute (in the Queen's English, no less) and I had no problems comprehending her.
The highlighting and text-enhancement features are another example of how Kurzweill 3000 does it all. As each word as is spoken, the program highlights that word onscreen using any number of backgrounds or text styles. The program also allows an increased range of pastel background colors to reduce contrast and enhance text recognition for both the learning disabled and the visually impaired. The program also allows users to easily vary the distance between words, a boon to readers who do better with the help of text separation and a big boost to those with learning disabilities. Why? Many of these people read better with the help of visual cues.
GIFT OF TONGUES. The Kurzweil 3000 goes far beyond the text-to-speech genre. Aside from English, it understands words in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Dutch. That means students can read a word in the language they are learning while seeing or hearing definitions and other information in their native language. The heavy-duty server-based version of this package can save individual preferences for hundreds of students. And Kurzweil 3000 comes in a Mac version, catering to all the educational institutions that still love their Apples.
Based on my experience, the Kurzweil 3000 provides a multisensory approach to learning that will improve reading speed and comprehension for people with all manner of learning disabilities, as well as for visually-impaired people. Yes, the software is pricey. The "Scan/Read Color" version goes for $1,895. With less features, the "Scan/Read Black and White" fetches $1,095 (I reviewed the color version).
While the prices are high, Kurzweil sells them to schools for several hundred dollars a program. With tight school budgets, this reduced price is a blessing. Regardless of the price, however, this is one program that should be available to all students with disabilities. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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