voicedreammailUpdated June 5

I’ve long been a booster of Voice Dream, the best text-to-speech app for reading e-books, at least for me.

Now, from developer Winston Chen, comes word of another product for iOS, Voice Dream Mail. As he describes the app, "It reads your email out loud using text-to-speech. And you control it by tapping and swiping anywhere on the screen. For example, swipe right to skip to the next email. That means you’ll be able to triage your inbox very quickly without ever looking at the screen.

"It’s an example of a ‘born accessible’ product: commuters can use it without taking their eyes off the road, and people with visual impairment and dyslexia can do email using a natural and highly efficient interface.

"The base app is free. Pro upgrade adds the ability to reply by voice dictation and multiple email accounts. It supports most email services including Gmail, Yahoo!, iCloud, AOL, Outlook.com, and any IMAP-based email services.

"You can download it here."

I bit and paid for the Pro version, available right now for $18 a year as an add-on to the free app. You see, I dictate most of my short correspondence on an iPad Air II, and I envisioned Voice Dream Mail as a time-saver.

Alas, it was not to be. First, I could not originate e-mail—the app only lets you reply. Second, in normal use, the screen didn’t show anything but an in-box, which vanished when I got into individual messages.

With just a Web version of Gmail or the official Google mail app in iOS, I can use the iPad’s speech recognition to create text, and then I can type on the virtual keyboard to make visible corrections. For me, then, Voice Dream Mail would actually be a step backwards.

I was hoping to use Voice Dream Mail while exercising. But even there, I don’t think I would come out ahead compared to the Google mail app.

Winston’s reply is that I’m not the market. As already stated, he’s envisioning it for commuters. But even though Voice Dream Mail comes with a warning to observe highway regulations, I would hate to drive within crashing distance of an executive caught up in e-mail.

Listening to an audio book or enjoying an e-book via text to speech, especially one read for fun, I wouldn’t need to pay the same sentence-by-sentence level of attention as I would with e-mail. The safety hazard isn’t the same. What’s more, I would not be composing.

Although I know that dictated composition on the road is at least as old as tape recorders, I’m still not the biggest fan of it. Yes, I know. Many would disagree and consider themselves to be safe multi-taskers. I just hope that when they drive in the opposite lane, there is a good-sized barrier or strip of grass between them and me.

I Googled around and, unfortunately, research confirmed my gut instinct. Check out Hands-Free Texting Is No Safer to Use When Driving, by David Pogue, in the Scientific American of October 15, 2013. No, texting isn’t the same as writing e-mail. But answering e-mail still requires concentration even if it is not as interactive.

“The Texas A&M Transportation Institute studied people driving a closed course under three conditions: while texting by hand, while texting by voice (using Siri for iPhone and Vlingo for Android), and without texting at all,” Pogue wrote.

“The results surprised me—and troubled me. Turns out it makes absolutely no difference whether you text hands-free or by voice. ‘Response times were significantly delayed no matter which texting method was used,’ the study says. In each case, drivers who were texting took about twice as long to react as they did otherwise. Incredibly, they also spent less time watching the road, even when they were texting by voice.”

The full study is here, and Pogue’s summary jibes with it.

What’s more, some sentences in  the study specifically address e-mail issues, as opposed simply to texting ones. For example:

“In 2004, Jamson et al. studied how driver behavior in a driving simulator was impacted by an email retrieval system. The email system would read an email message aloud either automatically or when the driver requested email retrieval. Compared to the driving-only condition, drivers exhibited longer headways, increased response times to roadway events, and shorter times to collisions when engaging in the email-reading task…”

I went on to an abstract of Speech-based E-mail and driver behavior: effects of an in-vehicle message system interface, by A. Hamish Jamson and three other researchers. An excerpt:

“Although speech-based interfaces can minimize direct interference with driving, the cognitive demands associated with such systems may still cause distraction. We studied the effects on driving performance of an in-vehicle simulated ‘E-mail’ message system; E-mails were either system controlled or driver controlled. A high-fidelity, fixed-base driving simulator was used to test 19 participants on a car-following task. Virtual traffic scenarios varying in driving demand. Drivers compensated for the secondary task by adopting longer headways but showed reduced anticipation of braking requirements and shorter time to collision. Drivers were also less reactive when processing E-mails, demonstrated by a reduction in steering wheel inputs.”

So, sorry—I regard Voice Dream Mail Pro  in its current form as more for the visually impaired and people with dyslexia than for time-short corporate executives barreling down the freeway. In fact, Winston does report interest from visually impaired  people even though they were not his main target. I hope so. In the interest of safety, Winston should immediately stop promoting Voice Dream Mail as a productivity tool for drivers.

Now, here’s his response in his own words (given before I found two studies):

“I think the key question is, what is this app for?

“My starting goal was email from drivers. We can debate whether it’s a good thing in general, but we can all agree that it’s better than looking at the phone. Or getting frustrated at Siri while driving.

“I did not intend it to be a general purpose email app. One’s primary email app. When you get home or to the office, there is no reason to continue to use it.

“I only belatedly discovered that this app is useful for visually impaired. So of course this app can evolve into the primary email app for VI community, but I hesitate to commit to that.

“Dictation quality is shockingly good. As in, I can’t believe this crappy Bluetooth headset can do it with near perfect accuracy.”

In another e-mail he wrote: “As I said, it’s for drives mostly. So it’s not safe to show ANYTHING on the screen.”

Well—with the exception of the in-box? I truly, truly hope that Winston will go back to the drawing board and come up with an e-mail client that really would be good enough for steady use by people like me at home or in the office. It should, of course, offer easy editing with the text visible.

Please, Winston. Leave on-the-road dictation of e-mail to passengers, not drivers. Time-pressed? Sorry. Wait for the Google driverless car.

Let me conclude with the suggestion that if you’re going to let people see the in-box, you might as well also include text listing all the commands. But that’s a detail in the grand scheme of things. First, Winston, please strike the C word—“commuter”—from all of your promotion for Voice Dream Mail Pro. It’s the responsible thing to do.

*     *     *

As for Winston’s already-superb Voice Dream reader, I actually feel opposite the way I do about Voice Dream Mail. I’m sighted and already find the reader to be endlessly useful to me as a productivity and recreational app—not just for people with visual impairments.

While Voice Dream Reader could use such refinements as multi-device synching and availability in Android, it is still a knock-‘em-out-of-the-park kind of tool for my own purposes. Yes, these matters are subjective. The reader’s ability to work with Adobe-DRMed e-books also would help. It could be a godsend for many blind library patrons, as well as for sighted patrons who want to hear books while exercising or commuting (at least when highway conditions are not too challenging).


  1. There’s an equally handy app for those who listen to podcasts on the go. It’s called Overcast.

    As a podcast player, it has fewer features than some. Where it really shines are in two features that none of the others have:

    Smart Speed-Doesn’t merely speed up playback slightly. It removes long pauses and the gaps in slow speaking, saving perhaps 20% of your time. That makes listening smoother and more pleasant.

    Voice Boost-Podcast vary enormous in in sound levels. This brings them to one single level, so you don’t have to constantly adjust the volume up and down.

    The two together are marvelous. They turn even the most amateurishly edited of podcasts into professionally sounding ones. It’s so marvelous, once I tried it, I haven’t wanted to use anything else.

    The downside right now is that it only plays back podcasts. It doesn’t work with audiobooks except through the kludge some audiobook websites offer of turning a book into chapter-long podcasts. But enough people have been calling for audiobook playback so they can benefit from those same features, that it is likely to be added soon. That’d be marvelous, particularly if you are like me and listen to free audiobooks from Librivox.

    If you use Instapaper, and you probably should, Overcast is from the same clever guy who invented Instapaper.


    –Mike Perry

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.