19 December 2010

Exploring Audio, Books & Apps

I recorded my first audiobook in 2007 online using the Hipcast.com podcast recording service (then $60). I offered it for sale on the now defunct "Wordcast" service of Audible.com, the premier online audiobook service, which at that time cost $50. I issued a paid news release via Prweb.com (then $120). No copies actually sold via Wordcast. After the demise of Wordcast, I tried Payloadz.com also without any success.

I subsequently decided to try CDBaby.com on the promise they could get my audiobook into the iTunes store, at a cost then of about $54. Since CDBaby is primarily for music, their upload standards are much higher than for audiobooks. They prefer high quality files either in WAV or FLAC format, but will accept MP3. Files must be stereo, 44.1 kHz (44100 Hz) sample rate, and 16 bit, or will be automatically rejected by their upload system. Most audiobooks are recorded using a single mono channel, 22 kHz (22050 Hz) sample rate, and 32 bit; so, I had to re-sample my original Hipcast recordings using the free Audacity audio program in order for CDBaby to accept them, which did work. This involved copying the original track to mimic stereo, but increases the ultimate size of the files on download. For whatever reason, CDBaby did not get my audiobook into iTunes, but did sell a number of copies.

For my first audiobook I used an external microphone with analog audio jack, but for the second one I got a digital USB headset. I recorded my second audiobook straight into Audacity, using the CDBaby required settings as default. In order to save as MP3 from Audacity, you will need to add the LAME MP3 Encoder plugin. I followed CDBaby advice and uploaded WAV files, but next time will use MP3 instead due to sheer size. I found plenty of good tutorial videos on YouTube which helped me learn how to use Audacity. Once you get used to Audacity, it seems quite straightforward, but can initially appear daunting without a background in audio.

There are a number of good audiobook apps for iPhone. Audiobook apps come in two types, natural voice recordings and synthetic readers. There is really a lot of classic literature available now as free audiobooks, as well as in ePub format. There is also a lot of contemporary audiobooks for sale. Further, the new ePub format for ebooks can be read by many text-to-speech readers using synthetic voices, while still somewhat staccato, are not as bad as they once were. Free audiobook iPhone apps include Audiobooks (Free), Free Audiobooks, Best Audiobooks, and Top100Audiobooks. Audible has its own free iPhone app, for purchasing their audiobook products. The "vBookz - Free Audiobooks" app costs $3.99, but contains many ePub ebooks and includes a text-to-speech reader.

There are some other cool iPhone audio apps too. I particularly like the "Web Reader - Text to Speech" app for $1.99, which enables Safari to read web pages to you via text-to-speech. I also like FeedOrator ($0.99), for reading RSS feeds to you out loud. There are at least 4 apps which will read your Twitter stream on the go, such as SpeakTweet and Monica. Monica includes Facebook, and also does voice-in or speech-to-text. Monica is really more of a multi-functional virtual agent, which I actually prefer to the much ballyhooed Apple Siri Assistant. There are other free speech-to-text tools available for the iPhone. I have tried "ShoutOUT - Speech-to-Text Messaging, Facebook and Twitter" and "Dragon Dictation", which also supports posting to Twitter and Facebook.

New: From the Balkans to the Baltics by Bike, 1989-1991 (AudioBook), by M. L. Endicott

Vagabond Globetrotting 3: The Electronic Traveler in the New Millennium (AudioBook), by M. L. Endicott

24 March 2010

MEndicott Meets STELARC & The Thinking Head Project

The adventure continues... at the end of 2008 I moved from Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, where I had been living for some years, to Sydney. Too young to retire, there is only so much beauty and tranquility one can take before going to where the action is; it was Sydney or the bush. I moved to the city hoping to get back into IT work and make some money to continue my research and development; instead, I ended up working in a warehouse for six months unloading trucks in order to afford a flat in the picturesque suburb of Manly on the north shore of Sydney harbor - a short ferry ride from the scenic Sydney Opera House.

I worked eight hard hours a day in the warehouse, then came home to work another eight hours every day on the Internet, mostly exploring the Twitterverse. Just as I arrived in Sydney, a clever geek girl, friend of a friend, insisted the best way for me to break into the Sydney digital world was to meet the Sydney Twitterati at a "Tweetup". I had no idea what that might be but went along anyway. I asked the geek girl what Twitter was, and she said "I don't know exactly what it is, but I've learned a lot from it.” So my journey into the Twitterverse began.

About this time I read a news story, "NASA spawns smart twin in Second Life", and made contact with John Zakos, CIO at Australia-based start-up MyCyberTwin, inquiring about opportunities - to no avail. Later I discovered that Liesl Capper, CEO of MyCyberTwin, lived in Sydney, but was unsuccessful in arranging a meeting despite a number of tries.

Early in 2009, I resolved to shake off the high maintenance big city life and head back to the bush. First Tasmania and then Melbourne, Victoria, the city of my birth. As a result of my Twitter bot @LonelyPlanetBot, built in Sydney burning the midnight oil, I came into contact with the "Innovation Ecosystems Manager" of new Lonely Planet Labs, who came down from BBC Research & Development subsequent to the acquisition of Lonely Planet by BBC Worldwide.

I had arranged to meet with Lonely Planet in March to discuss a proposal, but in February, while I was holidaying in Tasmania, the new owner, BBC, laid-off 10% of their workforce, replacing both the Lonely Planet CEO and Digital Director. Suddenly my contact was out of the country and unable to meet; it wasn't to be…

Since I was in Melbourne anyway, I started looking around for other avenues, other ways, to get my foot in the IT door. I had found the AGENTS-VIC Google Group; so, I contacted one of the moderators and was invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Intelligent Systems Agents Group at RMIT in Melbourne.

There I had a pleasant meeting with Lawrence Cavedon and his associate, Carole Adam, originally from France and who had helped organize the “WACA´ 2006 Second Workshop sur les Agents Conversationnels Anim├ęs” in Paris. They told me something about their work in pursuit of emotional expression in toys.

Almost simultaneously I read about the Melbourne performance artist STELARC and his work with robotics installations; so, I contacted him and he arranged a meeting for the next week after his return from Paris. We met for coffee at Druids Cafe on Swanston Street, more or less across the street from RMIT.

STELARC, despite a reputation for being provocative, was a gentleman and as modest and down to earth as could be. Only at the end of our conversation did he roll up his sleeve and show me the ear grafted to his arm, to my relief telling me it wasn't working right at the moment.

STELARC told me about his project, using AIML with the Prosthetic Head; but, more importantly, he told me of how it had lead to his being hired as something like the artistic director for a five-year nearly $5 million project called The Thinking Head funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council. Only then did I find out that Lawrence Cavedon was Chief Architect of The Thinking Head project.

STELARC put me in contact with The Thinking Head Project Leader, Denis Burnham, who was based at the University of Western Sydney MARCS Auditory Laboratories. I subsequently followed-up with STELARC; this time he gave me a tour of his "Virtual STELARC Initiative" space in the RMIT Creative Media region of SecondLife.

After I left Melbourne, a friend put me in contact with David Powers of Flinders University Informatics and Engineering School in Adelaide and a Chief Investigator of the Thinking Head project. His group is apparently working with the Melbourne Museum developing The Thinking Head into a museum guide.

As a result of my contact with The Thinking Head project team, I discovered the Australasian Language Technology Association (ALTA), before leaving Australia….