iPods Talk Back

by Janet Meyer Jul 12, 2006

It’s not here yet, but Scotsman News and others reports that Apple Computer has taken out a patent for an iPod with a voice. The idea is to make it possible to choose your music without looking at the screen. Apple won’t comment, but the patent application gives safety reasons as a prime motivator for this enhancement. The idea is to make it easier for listeners to find their music in situations where they wouldn’t be looking at their iPods, such as while driving or crossing the street.

This patent won’t apply just to iPods. Apple made it clear that they expect the technology to be used in other devices as well, such as mobile phones.

According to the patent application, Apple does not want to limit itself to just a single computer voice. The intent is to use a range of voices, including voices of famous actors. They want to make the voice warm and as human-sounding as possible.

Text-to-speech technology has been notoriously difficult to master. A major hurdle that Apple apparently feels it can conquer is the ability to pronounce even the more difficult and unusual words, such as uncommon names. According to the patent application, the new technology will master this skill.

Writers of several articles express the opinion that the ability to talk will give iPod yet another edge in the MP3 market. Judging by online comments, consumer reaction is mixed.

Though the patent talks about making iPods safer in situations where people should not be looking at their iPods, the population to benefit the most will be those who cannot see their iPods in the first place. Visually impaired consumers won’t have to sort through a myriad of songs by ear if this technology works. They will use their clickwheels as usual while a computer voice gives them the name of the song or album through their headphones.

Quite a few iPod users are hoping they will get to pick a voice. The idea of using famous actors sounds great, but if you don’t like the actor, it could become annoying. Many are hoping for the option to turn the voice off.

Several suggested that it might be better to allow users to talk to the iPod. They like the idea of just telling their iPods what song or artist they want to hear. (“Yo, iPod, I’m in the mood for Evanescence.”) Initially that sounds like a good idea, but the reality could be almost as much of a nuisance as listening to people talk on their cell phones.

It would be nice if people just used a little common sense when operating their iPods in situations where they should be watching something else. In other words, they should keep their eyes on the road. Unfortunately, they don’t. I’m not sure that voice technology will make it any safer, though. Numerous studies show that cell phones are unsafe because users are distracted. Scrolling through an iPod while listening to their choices would seem to have the same distractibility element.

What do you think? Are we better off with or without talking iPods? Apple won’t comment, but the patent application makes it clear that this will be an option one day if the technology is as good as Apple suggests. Given the option, do you prefer a talking iPod or the one you have now?

I welcome your comments.






  • Distractions are common, and range from cranky kids, to cell phones, to eating burgers or tuning your traditional style car radio.  iPods are just a newer form of distraction, not much different, really.

    To have the ability to scroll through my playlists without taking my eyes off the road, while still somewhat distracting, at least gives me a few extra seconds to respond to an emergency.  Not really much different from sitting there, watching the road, listening to my spouse list my latest faults!  Both situations distract my attention, but at least my eyes are on the road, not reading the playlist.  Those few seconds could mean the difference between an accident or just a close call.

    I think a talking iPod is a good idea!  When can I get mine?

    rahrens had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 18
  • Also, the ability to talk to your iPod will need a sound-in ability for the iPod, which could be usable for recording voice-notes.

    Marius_Th had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 11
  • The number of times I’ve come slightly closer to crashing in the car from skipping a track on my ipod make me A. a very bad person and B. consider this a definite improvement just if it lets you keep your eyes more constantly on the road and still change tracks.

    Benji had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 927
  • While I don’t particularly see the text to voice navigation as a real win for the average consumer, I would love to be able to download rss feeds, ebooks, pdfs and other text sources and listen to them on my ipod in a clear and well trained voice. Reading text on that small screen is such a chore.

    Tony had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 1
  • I’d love to get Jon Voight’s voice in my iPod. (Or angelina’s) And Tony i agree with the idea of having spoken *.pdfs.

    nana had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 63
  • A voice-feedback system would be OK with me as long as I can understand the vocal intonations (i.e. raspyness, accent of the model, etc.). As for the voice-activated part, unless Apple invented a better way than IBM’s Tru-Voice voice recognition system, then I have no choice but be skeptical.

    IBM’s voice research, by the way, has been donated to the Apache Foundation as open-source. I wonder if the iPod technology incorporates some of this research, or a completely rewritten VoiceOver and Speech Recognition of OSX modified for the iPod OS.

    Has anyone tried VoiceOver and Speech Recognition on their Tiger OS? What is your take? Is it responsive or do you have to say the commands repeatedly before being recognized? And what Mac model are you using?

    BTW, anybody have any “salt” to what kind of OS is being used on iPods? You can install a minimal Linux OS on the iPod, I know, but what is the embedded Apple-blessed OS that gives the iPod all that heavenly greatness?

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 12, 2006 Posts: 846
  • I’ve come across a software product that lets me listen to word documents on my iPod.  It seems to be a relatively new product and the voice is very pleasant to listen to.  I got it at http://www.magnetictime.com.

    speechless had this to say on Jul 13, 2006 Posts: 1
  • ...lets me listen to word documents on my iPod. -spch

    That is a nice idea. How’s the voice quality? Does she sound like she’s from any certain region on earth? Will have to try it one of these days.

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 14, 2006 Posts: 846
  • BTW, anybody have any “salt” to what kind of OS is being used on iPods?


    Benji had this to say on Jul 15, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Pixo, eh? Never heard of them but now I am curious since they are owned by Sun Micro.

    What is Apple’s intentions to dealing with a “NIH” secret OS in the iPod? Was this OS really that hard to develop? I can understand their staffing being short-manned but c’mon, a miniscule OS that mainly ACTs as a good organizer/database needed Sun’s Pixo group to develop?

    I need to go digging for more sweet bites of info…

    Robomac had this to say on Jul 21, 2006 Posts: 846
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