Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Text-driving" the NEO 2 with Text to Speech

We have been using the Alphasmart NEO and the Dana now for quite some time in our assistive technology equipment center. We have used it for alternative access in writing for some students who can't handwrite, and we have had a text to speech sound card in a Dana we have used with Write Outloud To Go from Don Johnston.
Recently I got an email on the NEO 2. When I found out they had built in the text to speech I wanted to try one out. They sent one for evaluation and I have been taking it out for a "text drive". I thought you might be interested in what I found out:

NEO 2 Text to Speech
The NEO2 has text to speech built in as standard. You access it with the purchase of a small wireless, battery operated receiver with headphones (see image above). This way the student can hear the voice without disturbing those around them. I hooked it up to a set of powered desktop speakers and turned it up. It worked great. My thought has been to use this as an alternate form of communication for students that can type well, but are non-verbal. The NEO with the text to speech kit comes in at $299. Well lower in cost than some of the mainstream word processing communicators. I also found the voice to be fine. It wasn't one of those primo natural voices, but it wasn't robotic and awful to the ear either.

Quizzes, Spell Check and Other Features
My main focus was on the alternative communication piece, but while I was at it, I thought I might as well share about other features it has as well. There are several "smart applets" that run programs off of the Renaissance Learning/Renaissance Place subscription services. The NEO can connect online through a wireless receiver ($99) to the Internet to access Accelerated Reader quizzes and Math Facts in a Flash. There is a built-in classroom response system, standard, that works with their 2Know! Toolbar software.

The NEO2 can come loaded with Co:Writer by Don Johnston, a word prediction tool, as a package for $338. I was told that a fully loaded NEO2 with Co:Writer and the text to speech receiver kit is $399.

Standard, at no extra charge (no subscription services) is the spell checker, thesaurus, Beamer infrared sending of files between NEO's, a calculator, Keywords typing tutor and AlphaQuiz that is set up to send quizzes to the NEO from a teacher computer, allowing students to answer on the keyboard. The program then scores and reports with the manager program when the finished quizzes are sent back.

Final thoughts:
There is a lot to the NEO2 keyboard and extension tools. I like that the NEO's text to speech receiver can be swapped between keyboards without worrying about which one has the text to speech software on it. Since it is on all of them as a standard tool, when a student needs the text 2 speech support, they can get a receiver and headphones and get going. The receiver needs to face directly in front of the NEO and no more than 3 feet away.
My only negative on the receiver is that if I am wanting to use this for a student as a communication device with others, I have to plug a speaker into the headphone jack on the receiver to be heard. Now I have 2 external items to carry along - the receiver and the speakers. An internal speaker and headphone jack option would be a nice addition.

I hope this gives you some ideas on the speech capabilities. This looks like a great piece of equipment to support learning.

All the best to you!


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