Your Mac Talks Back!

Mac OS X is great at listening to your speech, but the fun doesn’t stop there . . . your MacBook can talk to you, too! By using one of the many available voices — including the default Snow Leopard voice, Alex — you can make your computer talk or even sing. (Not as well as Sinatra, but better than Bob Dylan.) And although Speech Recognition lets you speak to your laptop, the VoiceOver feature gives your MacBook the ability to speak text. This is an especially useful feature because it lets you listen to your e-mails, Web pages, or even your homework — sometimes the eyes need a break. The text-to-speech capability gives you the opportunity to lean back in your chair or even get up and walk around while still using your computer.
Text-to-speech settings appear in three places within System Preferences: our old friend, the Speech pane; the Date & Time pane; and the VoiceOver settings within the Universal Access pane.

The Text to Speech panel

The text-to-speech engine that comes with Snow Leopard has a collection of many different voices from which to choose; some voices are male, some are female, and some aren’t human at all. To select your MacBook’s voice in Mac OS X, follow these steps:
1. Click the System Preferences icon in the Dock.
2. Click the Speech icon.
3. Click the Text to Speech tab, as shown in Figure 3-4.
You can select your Mac's voice from the Text to Speech pane.
Figure 3-4:
You can select your Mac’s voice from the Text to Speech pane.
4. Click the System Voice pop-up menu to choose a voice for your MacBook.
To hear the voice, click Play; Snow Leopard speaks a sentence as a demonstration. To the left of the Play button is a slider for adjusting the speed of the speech. Move the slider to the right to increase the speed at which your MacBook speaks and to the left to slow it down.
Naturally, Alex receives the most attention these days, because he’s the default voice for Snow Leopard . . . and Alex definitely provides the most natural-sounding tone and best pacing of the bunch. However, I also think that the old-school voices, like Bruce and Vicki, are still quite intelligible. (I’m a Vicki kinda guy myself.)

Talking alerts

After you select a voice, you have a variety of ways to make your laptop speak automatically to you, based on some simple rules. For example, every Mac owner has run into an Alert dialog. (Alert dialogs are typically
accompanied by a select group of words — better left unspoken — from the human behind the keyboard.) An Alert dialog usually displays some kind of icon from the following list:
♦ Stop sign: Indicates that something particularly important requires your attention — usually an error or a dire warning.
♦ Yield sign: Signals that you should proceed cautiously; not as severe as the Stop sign, but important nonetheless.
♦ Notification: Looks like the profile of a person speaking; displays an informative message, but not a warning. You could use this feature, for example, to have a calendar application alert you when you have a meeting or a deadline.
From the Text to Speech pane, you can choose to have your MacBook
speak a specific phrase or the contents of the Alert dialog by selecting one of the check boxes at the middle of the pane. If you select the Announce When Alerts Are Displayed check box, click the Set Alert Options button to set alert-specific options:
♦ Voice: Choose the voice that should speak alerts. (By default, it’s the voice you chose earlier.)
♦ Phrase: Click this pop-up menu to choose a “prefix” phrase that’s spoken before the actual alert text. By default, Snow Leopard speaks the name of the application that displayed the alert, but you can also choose a phrase from the list or choose to mix up the phrases for a little variety. To add or remove phrases, click the Edit Phrases item.
♦ Delay: Drag this slider to control the increment of time that Snow Leopard allows to pass before it speaks.
To hear what your spoken alert settings sound like in use, click the Play button.
If you click the Play button on the Set Alert Options sheet and don’t hear anything right away, remember that it doesn’t begin speaking until the time has elapsed that you set with the Delay slider. To hear the spoken alerts speak as soon as you click the Play button, move the slider to 0 (zero).

Other spoken items

In addition to spoken alerts, you can allow your Mac to speak when other actions occur. Again, these settings are found on the Text to Speech pane. Your MacBook can speak in the following circumstances:
♦ Announce when an application requires your attention: In case you have your Dock hidden from view, it’s not always clear when an application needs your attention. In these instances, Mac OS X grabs your attention via speech.
♦ Read a selection of text when you press a particular key: If you have a child who’s learning to read, the MacBook can help him or her by reading a selection of text. Kids can figure out how to drag and select text often more quickly than they can read that text.
♦ Announce the time: Are you like me, constantly getting lost in time while immersed in your work? (Not to mention your favorite game.) I’ve set my MacBook Pro to announce the hour, which always keeps my time sense firmly planted.

The Date & Time pane

There you are, deep in concentration as you finish up the final topic of your Great American Novel, when you glance at the clock in the Finder menu bar and realize that you were supposed to pick up your kids at soccer practice a full hour ago!
You can avoid this shameful lapse of parental responsibility by turning on Snow Leopard’s automatic spoken time feature, which is controlled from the Date & Time pane within System Preferences (and is much more effective than a mechanical cuckoo clock). But why go to all the trouble of clicking Show All when you can just click the Open Date & Time Preferences button on the Text to Speech pane? Snow Leopard immediately switches to display the Date & Time pane. You can even click the Clock on the Finder menu bar and click Open Date & Time. (Again, it’s all about the convenience when it comes to the geniuses at Apple.)
From the Date & Time pane, click the Clock tab and select the Announce the Time check box to enable your Macbook to speak the time; then use the Period pop-up menu to choose spoken time at the quarter, half, or full hour. You can also customize the voice for spoken time as well.
After you’re done, zip back to the Speech pane by clicking the Back button at the top-left corner of the System Preferences window.

Configuring VoiceOver within the Universal Access pane

With Snow Leopard’s VoiceOver utility, your MacBook can provide you with all sorts of verbal feedback, creating a spoken English interface with Snow Leopard — a valuable addition to the operating system for the physically impaired. The feedback includes
♦ Announcing when certain keys are pressed: Snow Leopard can tell you when a modifier key (such as Control, Option, or 96) is pressed or when the Caps Lock key is pressed.
♦ Announcing cursor movements: You hear an audible alert when your mouse cursor switches between windows or when you’ve clicked a menu.
♦ Announcing the position of the VoiceOver cursor: VoiceOver can audibly identify all operating system controls (such as buttons, sliders, and list boxes) by using a special on-screen cursor.
♦ Reading documents, Web pages, and Mail messages: VoiceOver can read aloud the contents of all sorts of documents and application windows.
♦ Speaking the characters you type: You can set VoiceOver to speak every character or each word you type.
Here is how to enable VoiceOver (or to launch the VoiceOver utility, as shown in Figure 3-5):
You can customize the VoiceOver audible feedback with the VoiceOver Utility.
Figure 3-5:
You can customize the VoiceOver audible feedback with the VoiceOver Utility.
1. Click the Open Universal Access Preferences button on the Text to Speech pane.
2. Select the On radio button (or press 96+F5) to enable VoiceOver. (If you’re using a current Mact, MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, or a newer Mac desktop keyboard, press 96+Fn+F5 instead.)
To customize how VoiceOver operates, click the Open VoiceOver Utility button.

Speaking text through applications

Although VoiceOver provides a comprehensive text-to-speech interface for Mac OS X, it might be more than you need. If you simply want to hear text spoken within your applications, a number of alternative methods are included in Snow Leopard that don’t require VoiceOver.
One of the simplest ways to hear spoken text in Mac OS X is by using the TextEdit application. TextEdit is a simple text processor that accompanies every copy of Mac OS X. Besides its handy word processing features,
TextEdit can also speak text. This is good for reviewing a document after you’ve written it by listening to it. To hear spoken text with TextEdit, follow these steps:
1. Launch TextEdit from the Applications folder.
To open the Applications folder, choose GoOApplications from the Finder. In the window that appears, double-click the TextEdit application.
This launches the TextEdit application and opens a new document.
2. Enter some text.
Either type some text on the keyboard or paste some into the document from the Clipboard. Here’s an example:
3. Choose EditOSpeechOStart Speaking.
Your MacBook begins speaking the text from the document. The speech engine has some intelligence, so you can enter dollar amounts (such as $25,423.12) or Roman numerals (such as topic XIV), and the speech engine reads them back in plain English. The result of these two strings would be “twenty-five thousand, four-hundred twenty-three dollars, and twelve cents” and “topic fourteen.”
4. Choose EditOSpeechOStop Speaking.
Your Macbook stops speaking. It also stops speaking when it reaches the end of the text.

Speaking text through services

You can also speak text within most applications by using the Services menu, located under the application’s named menu. To speak text from an application, first select that text. Then, choose ApplicationOServicesO SpeechOStart Speaking to speak text from many applications (where Application is the name of the currently running application). If you don’t want to use VoiceOver, this works great for doing things like
♦ Speaking a Web page aloud
♦ Reading your e-mail
♦ Listening to a speech you’ve written in Pages
As you might expect, choosing ApplicationOServicesOSpeechOStop Speaking ceases the banter emanating from your MacBook’s speaker.
Alas, not all applications are created equal. Some applications can’t access the Services offered in the Services menu. If you don’t see Speech in the list of services, you’re out of luck.

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