by B.T. Kimbrough
Vice-President, Enabling Technologies
Jensen Beach, Florida
As the first commercially available software for reading DAISY books on a PC, LpPlayer is a very inexpensive vehicle for gaining access to the new format. LpPlayer requires no special hardware, but does need a Pentium-class desktop or laptop computer, equipped with a sound card and CD-ROM drive, along with enough memory and storage capacity to support Windows 95 or 98. Because the software does not voice its own prompts, blind users will find it essentially useless without a screen-reader supporting either speech or refreshable Braille. In fact, the presence of both speech and Braille can add significantly to the player's usefulness, particularly if full scanned print text is provided along with the recorded narration.
To properly appreciate LpPlayer, or any DAISY-compatible software, it is important to keep in mind that a book in this format is really a CD-ROM containing a series of highly compressed sound recordings, and a complex network of links, not unlike those encountered on the average Internet website. But while Internet links are only expected to direct the user to the beginning of a particular section or article, the DAISY links have a much more demanding goal: To provide something like random access to the book's content. Of course, in order to accomplish this on its own, the electronic book would have to contain a link for each heading, page and paragraph in the text, with special hyperlinks to footnotes, indexes and appendixes.
Thanks to the careful planning contributed by its numerous developers, the DAISY format lends itself to automatic processes which can create some of these links without prohibitive levels of human intervention. But each link does require at least a moment of human attention, and choices must be made. The carefully considered DAISY specification calls for a link at the beginning of each page and each major heading, such as a chapter break. Provisions are also made for links to half a dozen levels of smaller headings, each with its own format description, similar to those found in the popular hypertext markup language used on the Internet.
LpPlayer's task is to use whatever link structure an electronic book contains to provide near-direct access to any passage without minutes of searching and without dramatic inconsistencies. Although it sometimes falls short of this ambitious goal, LpPlayer delivers enough navigation consistency to make a collection of sound recordings function very much like a book.
THROWING THE BOOK AT LpPLAYER
For this review, several textbooks and standard literary works prepared by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic were subjected to a broad series of searches and other study-related tasks. The primary goal was to determine how efficiently the user can extract specific passages or pieces of information from the sample CDs without having to listen to them in their entirety or search haphazardly, as required by the previous generations of analog recorded text.
First, of course, LpPlayer must be installed and its basic controls mastered. These tasks proved reasonably simple. The only difficulty encountered during installation was caused by the fact that some of the necessary files wouldn't copy properly until the screenreader was removed from memory.
Learning the controls took only moments, because there are only a few keyboard shortcuts in addition to vertical and horizontal arrow keys. To begin navigating a book, the user simply inserts the disk into the CD-ROM drive, activates LpPlayer, and "arrows" to the appropriate drive in the "open file" dialog box. After a few seconds of rapid drive rotation, a human voice speaks the information that appears on the book's cover. From there, the reader is able to page through the preliminary information using the page up and page down cursor keys, or the handy on-screen link to move directly to the table of contents. Incidentally, there are also direct on-screen links to the beginnings of chapters, but in order to determine the subjects of each chapter, it will usually be necessary to consult the full table of contents.
While the titles in the Table of Contents are not links, which would give direct access to their text by a single keystroke, access to chapter openings is still simple and quick. Once the user hears the page number of the desired chapter, she or he can simply press "control-p" for the "go to page" dialogue and enter the page number vocalized. If the sought-after chapter begins at the top of a page, its number and title will be the next thing heard. If the chapter begins mid-page, the user can simply press the "Next Heading" command (control-down arrow) once the reading of the desired page commences.
Unless there are major headings within each chapter, the "next-" and "previous-heading" commands will only locate the beginning of chapters. How, then, can the user move directly to a particular word, sentence or paragraph by electronically searching the text? Unfortunately, the answer is, it cant be done, unless the producer of the electronic work has supplied complete written as well as recorded text. The DAISY specification incorporates this generous combination of the two media, and fortunate indeed is the reader who has access to such an electronic edition.
With access to the complete written text, the user can search for a particular word, and the narration will begin at its next occurrence. Using either spoken or Braille screenreader output, spelling of names and unusual words can be checked at will.
If the recorded narration is difficult to follow, or if text needs to be studied in depth, the user can press the "stop" control and read on in Braille if the screenreader supports a refreshable display. Feed it an electronic production combining written text and reasonably competent spoken narration, and LpPlayer will deliver everything a traditional book can offer along with the value-added feature of text searchability.
Of course, this feature-rich production format carries a heavy price in human and electronic resources. Recording a narration, and electronically scanning the text into a reasonably clean file constitute separate, skill-intensive tasks. Formatting the scanned text, with all necessary links for and synchronization with recorded narration, adds a third layer of complexity. At this point, it is fair to assume that most DAISY files offered at little or no cost by not-for-profit institutions will be limited to what is termed structured audio, that is, a complete recorded narration, supported by links to each page and major heading, but without the scanned electronic text.
In the absence of completely digitized text, LpPlayer lacks freedom of movement. There is no way of moving directly to a particular paragraph or sentence and no command for moving backwards by a few words or sentences. This can be frustrating for the user who wants to re-read a passage; in order to do so, he or she must return to the top of the page and listen continuously from that point until the desired passage is found. In addition, if listening is interrupted by a phone call or a passing remark, the "play" command will not start where the reader left off, but rather will return to the top of the preceding page. This will also occur if the user sets a bookmark, writes or speaks a note to clarify a passage of text.
The note facility is a very useful feature. Any computer equipped with a suitable microphone allows the user to simply enter a note vocally after pressing the start key. A textual note of up to eighty characters may also be entered either in addition to, or in place of a voice note. These notes may be reviewed sequentially later using the up and down arrow keys.
ALMOST PRECISELY YOURS
Because of its ability to jump directly to a particular page or chapter beginning, LpPlayer will offer perfectly adequate DAISY access to the casual reader of novels or straightforward nonfiction. The length of time expended in locating a particular passage, and the necessity of listening to extraneous material during the search, represent major distractions to the serious student. While the architecture of digital audio format makes this navigational difficulty quite understandable, the absence of "fast-forward/rewind" controls remains difficult to contend with.
With its impressive note-taking and word-searching facilities, LpPlayer is clearly designed to be a serious study aid. At the moment, it achieves the status of a fairly impressive and sophisticated listening device. Those of us who attended high school or university and used primitive textbook recordings on unreliable tapes and phonograph records might well find the problems described here an easy pill to swallow and would jump at the chance to return to school today with DAISY on our desktops.
LpPlayer Version 2.4 is a DAISY Synchronized Multi Media Integration Language specification (SMIL) and HTML Talking Book Player is a product of Labyrinten Data AB. Available by download from www.labyrinten.se or contact Labyrinten Data, AB Box 132, 521 02 Falkoping Sweden Phone:(+46) 515-821-75 Fax: (+46) 515-808-47 E-mail: email@example.com. LpPlayer is also available from The Productivity Works, Inc., 7 Belmont Circle, Trenton, NJ 08618, USA Phone: 609-984-8044 Fax: 609-984-8048 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Download from their web site at www.prodworks.com. Current price from both sources to register LpPlayer is $45.
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