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David Zax

A View from David Zax

SpokenLayer Makes an Audio Book of the Web

What if you could have actual humans read websites to you?

  • May 24, 2012

A friend of mine, a graduate student in history, says he sometimes so tires of reading that he’ll highlight large amounts of text and have his Mac’s automated voice read aloud to him, while he cooks or exercises. While this seems logical enough to me, it also seems like a stopgap solution. I love being read to, but the last person I would have read to me would be Stephen Hawking. For all the wonders of text-to-voice and voice synthesizing technology, there’s still no match for an old-fashioned, human voice when it comes to having someone read aloud to you.

Which is why SpokenLayer, a new startup that brings a human voice to web content, is an absolutely brilliant idea. (It launched in public beta this week at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, where the startup is based.) SpokenLayer, currently available as an iOS app, taps professional voice talent to read web content, or allows authors of web content to create their own recorded versions. (In the long run, probably only the second option will scale.) The company has partnered thus far with the AP, TechCrunch, The Atlantic, National Journal, and Engadget.

I love this idea, and not only because it might save time and headaches for a lot of people (SpokenLayer was born out its own founder’s struggle with dyslexia). I also love that it gives authors a literal voice, especially once SpokenLayer launches its self-service platform that would allow authors to record an audio version of their story via SpokenLayer’s app. One of my favorite aspects of The Atavist, the digital long-form journalism app, is the ability to hear a rich tale lovingly spun by the person who inevitably cares about it most, the author. That full, book-on-tape experience–or something approximating it–would be right at home on the web, particularly with longer stories. I could imagine SpokenLayer partnering with a site like Instapaper (which I currently use to save web content to read on the subway) to create audio story queues.

Tellingly, the company’s founder Will Mayo intimated to TechCrunch that he saw SpokenLayer replacing the podcast. “Distribution was a problem and it never quite hit the mainstream,” he said, pretty much summing up my own frustrations with podcasting. Mayo also said while publishers could implement a “Listen” button fairly easily on their site, the “easiest way” to integrate with SpokenLayer would be to give the company their RSS feed and be featured within the app.

As an HTML5-enabled web becomes richer and filled with more audio and video, the role of print journalists will continue to expand and bleed over into realms traditionally held by radio or other broadcast journalists. Looking over the “Tips and Tricks” section of SpokenLayer’s website, I’m a bit daunted: How soon till I have to be able to wield a microphone like a pro?

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