Feb. 1, 2011, 3:43 a.m.
posted by maxe
Listen to Email, Weblogs, and RSS Feeds on the Road
Have your email, blogs, and RSS feeds read to you using computer text-to-speech voice synthesis. It's safer than reading while driving.
Computers have had primitive speech synthesis capabilities since the early 1980s (you may remember the awkward computer voice of the Speak & Spell), but only recently have computers gotten powerful enough to produce speech that sounds, well, natural. While the alt-rock band Radiohead pioneered the use of speech synthesis in a song on their album OK Computer, this hack shows off some products that you can use to have your email read back to you or keep up with blogs while you're on the road.
To get the email messages into your car PC to begin with, you need to either carry them to your computer via a portable storage device or follow the hacks in Chapter 6 to enable your computer for Internet access.
One option for reading your mail is to use a product such as ByteCool's CoolSpeech (http://www.bytecool.com), which fetches email from a POP3 email account and reads it to you. The program relies on the built-in voices available on your computer, and you can purchase additional, higher-quality voices from their web site that work with Microsoft's Speech API (SAPI). You don't have to worry that the emails will get deleted from the mail server; the email feature in CoolSpeech is read-only and leaves the messages in place so that you can download them later with your regular email client.
Another approach is to simply convert the emails or text documents to MP3 on your desktop computer, and then carry the MP3s to your car computer via a portable drive. You can Google "email TTS MP3" (or similar keywords) to find a variety of programs to do this, such as Visual Text To Speech MP3 (http://www.visual-mp3.com/text-to-speech/).
In fact, most text-to-speech programs (http://www.microsoft.com/speech) come with some sort of helper application you can use to quickly convert text to speech and save it to a WAV file, which can then be easily ripped to an MP3 by another program. For more on this approach, check out Hack #62 in TiVo Hacks, by Raffi Krikorian (O'Reilly), which you can find online at http://hacks.oreilly.com/pub/h/549.
Reading RSS Feeds and Weblogs
Since I love to keep up with snippets of news but hate the time sink of actually going to Slashdot, I've rigged up a couple of RSS feeds to email news to me. RSS (Real Simple Syndication) is a protocol used by thousands of news-oriented web sites to deliver real-time text summaries of news stories.
Using Aaron Palmquist's rss2email program (http://www.aaronsw.com/2002/rss2email/), I set up NPR main news feeds and Slashdot headlines to forward to my secret car-only spam-free email account, which I then retrieve on my way home from work using my in-car WiFi connection [Hack #62].
The actual scripts run on my home computer (a Mac), so I always have a full set of world news and geek news headlines, conveniently read to me as new emails. rss2email is designed to run on Linux/Mac OS X, but since it doesn't have to run on the car computer itself, you just need a Mac or a Linux box running somewhere. (On Windows, all the blog-aggregator programs I could find only worked with mail servers based on the IMAP or Exchange server protocols, and thus wouldn't work with the more prevalent POP3 protocol email readers that support mobile text-to-speech.)
The real challenge of using these programs on the road is that they still require a keyboard to get the email readback started. Safely controlling all these disparate apps is covered in "Car-Enable Clunky Applications" [Hack #58].