Books, the digitising and text-to-speechifying thereof

April 15, 2014 Liz Upton

A couple of books projects for you today. One is simple, practical and of great use to the visually-impaired. The other is over-complicated, and a little bit nuts; nonetheless, we think it’s rather wonderful; and actually kind of useful if you’ve got a lot of patience.

We’ll start with the simple and practical one first: Kolibre is a Finnish non-profit making open-source audiobook software so you can build a reader with very simple controls. This is Vadelma, an internet-enabled audio e-reader. It’s very easy to put together at home with a Raspberry Pi: you can find full instructions and discussion of the project at Kolibre’s website.

The overriding problem with automated audio e-readers is always the quality of the text-to-speech voice, and it’s the reason that books recorded with real, live actors reading them are currently so much more popular; but those are expensive, and it’s likely we’ll see innovations in text-to-speech as natural language processing research progresses (it’s challenging: people have been hammering away at this problem for half a century), and as this stuff becomes easier to automate and more widespread.

How easy is automation? Well, the good people at Dexter Industries decided that what the Pi community (which, you’ll have noticed, has a distinct crossover with the LEGO community) really needed was a  robot that could use optical character recognition (OCR) to digitise the text of a book, Google Books style. They got that up and running with a Pi and a camera module, using the text on a Kindle as proof of concept pretty quickly.

But if you’re that far along, why stop there? The Dexter team went on to add Lego features, until they ended up with a robot capable of wrangling real paper books, down to turning pages with one of those rubber wheels when the device has finished scanning the current text.

So there you have it: a Google Books project you can make at home, and a machine you can make to read the books to you when you’re done. If you want to read more about what Dexter Industries did, they’ve made a comprehensive writeup available at Makezine. Let us know how you get on if you decide to reduce your own library to bits.

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