Software Review of Zoomtext Xtra: Integrating Screen Magnification and Synthesized Speech
For many visually impaired and learning disabilities individuals, screen magnification has unlocked the door to computer access. The same holds true for synthesized speech. Until recently, in order to use both technologies simultaneously, it was necessary to u se three different hardware or software utilities. The user would need to have screen magnification, a speech synthesizer and a scre en reader. Information technology, and adaptive technology in particular, is changing in two important ways: costs are dropping as products become increasingly sophisticated. ZoomText Xtra exemplifies both trends.
What is ZoomText Xtra?
ZoomText Xtra is a software program that was developed by AI Squared and is comprised of three components: screen magnification, scr een reading and scanning with OCR (Optical Character Recognition). It was specifically designed for access to Microsoft Windows appl ications and documents. ZoomText Xtra is comprised of three product levels. Each level progresses to meet the needs of a broader us er population. Two levels are reviewed here; the third, which is the OCR component, will be made available in 1998.
Level 1 is a complete and sophisticated screen magnification program. This level works in both Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. The need for sophistication in a screen magnification program is essential if it is to meet the needs of a wide variety of degrees o f visual impairment. Users can adjust the degree of magnification and other screen features. The following section includes some of the major adjustments along with a brief explanation of their functions.
Magnification levels can be adjusted from 2 to 16 times the size of the normal presentation of the computer monitor.
As the size of screen presentation increases, there is a tendency for text and graphics to, "break up." Edge smoothing greatly redu ces this break up.
Zoom Windows allows the user to define specific parts of the screen to be magnified. This is helpful when one area of the screen nee ds to be monitored more than the entire screen. For example, it can be very difficult to see the mouse pointer when trying to scroll down in a document when using the scroll bar.
Cursor Size and Mouse Pointer
Low vision users often have a very difficult time keeping track of the cursor or mouse pointer. Level 1 allows the user to manipula te the size and color of these features.
When a computer is used by a number of individuals, general settings of a screen magnification program may not work well. This is because there are different degrees of visual impairment. Level 1 of ZoomText Xtra allows an individual to configure the program to suit his/her needs and save those settings to a personal c onfiguration file. Since there is no limit to the number of these files, each individual can set up ZoomText Xtra and save the set up files; once they've customized Zoomtext Xtra, program users can invoke their personal configuration file and all settings will be returned to their preference. This feature has great appeal to institutions such as schools and libraries.
Level 1 of ZoomText Xtra has many additional features that are beyond the scope of this review. Perhaps the most impressive feature of Level 1 is the ability to configure settings in a wide variety of ways and have different configuration files for any number of users.
Level 2 offers the same screen magnification power as level 1. The basic difference in level 2 is the addition of speech. The speech in level 2 uses the computer's own sound card that comes with nearly every new IBM or compatible. The speech engine is a software program called Tru-Voice that is included with ZoomText Xtra. T his is an important feature because, in the past, a separate hardware speech synthesizer was needed to produce speech. This speech s ynthesizer was "driven" by a screen reading program.
Speech is fully synchronized with screen magnification. Synchronization means that the magnification "follows" the reading of text. As the text is being read in the document reader, each word is highlighted as it is pronounced.
ZoomText Xtra vocalizes all essential Windows components. Some of these components include menus, controls, titles and dialog messa ges. Verbosity settings allow the user to control the amount of speech feedback spoken. This is useful because there are often repe titive messages that become annoying in Windows programs. Once they have been read, there is no need to hear them repeated.
The speech can be echoed by character or by word. There are times when the user is better served by hearing their keyboard input cha racter-by-character (for example, when doing computer programming or typing email addresses). Hearing typed input word-by-word is mo st effective in word processing applications.
The built in speech software supports all Windows 95 sound cards. ZoomText Xtra also supports most of the major speech synthesizers. This is important because if an individual or institution alread y uses a hardware speech synthesizer, they can continue to do so.
The Doc Reader, which is available to the user in Levels 1 and 2, allows the user to read in any Windows application. Often users wo uld like to review what they are doing but would rather not lose their place in the application. The Doc Reader permits the user to review their work in a number of ways and then return to their place in the application.
ZoomText Xtra requires a PC compatible system that includes the following:
486 or higher processor. Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 16, 256 color capability or High Color display driver minimum 8 MB of memory. 16 MB preferred.
Level 2 requires that you have a Windows sound card or SSIL speech synthesizer.
This article does not cover all of ZoomText Xtra's features. Raather, it is intended to highlight the systems integration of speech and magnification; anyone who has tried to synchronize speech with screen magnification using separate hardware and/or software products certainly understands the challenge.
This program was designed so that all components work together. Is it perfect? No. It is very close however. The installation is painless. It took the author about 10 minutes without the use of t he manual. Installation was very straightforward with step by step onlineinstructions. When the program was launched, the on scree n control center was simple to understand and navigate.
I have found this program to be nearly flawless in its performance. It does exactly what it says it will do. Nothing is perfect but on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, ZoomText Xtra is a 9.8.
Often when new products are introduced, it is wise to wait until bugs are discovered and fixed. This is a rare exception.
AI Squared can be found on the web at:
Readers can find more details about this product along with pricing information. They also have a fully functioning demo.