Tag Archives: ideas

Screen readers 1, humans 0

Spoken version: MP3 | OGG

Yesterday I sent out a one-question survey on Twitter about screen readers. I’d had this fantastic idea for a website plugin that would enable blog editors to easily record an audio version of their blog posts when publishing [1]. Vision-impaired users would rejoice, website traffic would shoot up and I’d be rich and famous. To double-check, I asked the following question which was retweeted and replied to by several kind souls:

I expected replies along the lines of “stupid question, of course a human recording is better but we have no choice”. How wrong I was.

If you’re not sure how a blind or low-vision user can “read” a webpage, listen to the following short video showing a screen reader in action.

When I’ve seen friends use screen readers it’s always struck me as sounding difficult to understand and likely to get annoying after a while. Where’s the warmth or personality in that mechanical voice?! But I was enlightened as to how incredibly empowering this technology is and the replies I got were pretty unanimous — screen readers win hands down.

Benefits of screen readers

  • Ability to control such as jumping forwards, backwards or elsewhere in the page
  • Ability to check spelling
  • Ability to listen by word
  • Ability to change reading speed (humans are too slow)
  • Ability to follow links

Some of these are also possible with JavaScript, e.g. changing the speed of an audio file, but it would add an extra UI to the interface that the user is already familiar with. I suppose it’s similar to my beloved Kindle — I now feel the limits of books printed on paper compared to ebooks with their dictionary lookups, highlighting, linking, etc.

The only non-unanimous opinion was for fiction where a human narration is sometimes preferred for continuous reading and to feel emotion.

So another day older, another day wiser and thanks to everyone who sent comments.


  1. When editing a blog post, it should be possible to use getUserMedia to record the audio, send that to the Web Audio API and export it as a WAV file using the Recorder.js library. Then get the WAV file transcoded to OGG or MP3 via an online API such as Encoding.com (no affiliation) and uploaded to cloud storage. The resulting URL could be inserted into an audio element at the top of the blog post, a bit like this one.

What makes Google innovative

I was lucky enough to attend the first Information Science and Technology Christmas lecture at Tokyo University the other day and, although all the talks were interesting, I particularly enjoyed Kentaro Tokusei sharing Google’s ideas about innovation.

Kentaro Tokusei is currently Google’s Group Product Manager (and a nice guy, according to my colleague) and is clearly enthusiastic about the products his people create. Although, like many, my concerns about privacy increase with everything Google releases, it was still interesting to hear his 8 steps to innovation:

  1. A mission that matters
  2. Think big but start small
  3. Continual innovation, not instant perfection
  4. Ideas come from everywhere
  5. Share everything
  6. Data drives decisions
  7. 20% time
  8. Be a platform

Not much to disagree with there and arguably no real revelations, but still good food for thought. He finished with “Believe in the impossible and it can become true” – a suitable closing remark for a Christmas lecture.

Thinking outside the box, inside a box

Some cooked popcornNot technology-related but I actually had a pleasant experience while being dragged into a cosmetics shop yesterday. I tend to get turned off by the overpowering smelly stuff and fake tans of the staff, but this particular shop (a branch of Lush) had something special – popcorn!

Alas, it wasn’t for eating but rather for packaging. Yes, Lush have given up using shredded paper, already an improvement on styrofoam, and since summer 2007 (got my finger on the pulse as always!) have been using popcorn to protect their bath bombs, blocks of shampoo, etc.

The slightly in-your-face salesperson reeled off the benefits for me:

  • Easily compostable (but then so is paper).
  • 60% lighter than previous packaging so more efficient to transport.
  • They pop the corn at their distribution centres so just the smaller kernels are shipped in. Again, more efficient to transport.
  • Previously, products were wrapped in plastic to protect against ink marks from the paper but now no plastic is needed.

The downside is that they have to make it clear both the product AND the packaging are not edible. Another is that more food is being produced for packaging. Add that to the trend of food production for fuel and it puts more pressure on limited resources. On balance, I imagine the overall effect is positive but it would be interesting to see some expert analysis.

Still, it’s great to see innovation and originality, although apparently not as original as I first thought. A Dutch company tried this back in 1990 and there are even anecdotes that popcorn was used in World War II to protect packages parachuted to recipients on the ground.

Another reminder that history has a lot to teach us about thinking outside the box.