Sunday, August 23, 2015

Read Assistant

I took 4 courses as part of my masters degree at university last semester. If I said I had tons of textual material to read I would not be exaggerating. Literally hundreds and hundreds of pages to read each week. Some of the readings were difficult academic articles too. Stuff you can't just read casually, to absorb and understand the material. On top of all the textbook reading I had to read at least two academic articles on the topic of philosophy of science per week. I had to understand these two articles and critique them. If I didn't do that regularly I would fall behind on the readings for that course and it would simply be impossible to complete the readings for the following week. I had to write tons of material too. Writing and editing of documents takes a lot of time too - a lot of rereading of what I wrote.

At times, my mind was at the brink of exploding. My eyes would sting from all the screen time. The will to learn was certainly there but sometimes I felt I was just too physically tired to keep on going and stay focused.

That's when I discovered that I can keep on going even when I felt all I can do is just lie down and rest my eyes. If I used text-to-speech functionality built into the PDF reader I was using. It wasn't a perfect solution. It would only read text from the current page onwards or from the beginning of the document. It didn't highlight the sections it was reading so I still had to put and effort into following what was being read. I then tried another piece of free software that would read any content pasted into the clipboard. I copied small chunks of text from the PDF document and the program would read them out to me. Still not ideal.

I wanted an app that would read and highlight the PDF or Word documents for me. Highlighting of the sections of text that were currently read out would help me read actively. Synergy - that's what I needed. Other usability characteristics too. For example, ability to use the software on my surface which is a touch device. Ever tried copy-pasting text on a touch device? It can be a pain. Buttons would have to be large, the user interface would have to have high contrast. It should be functional in sub-optimal conditions, such as when you're on public transport with background noise or outdoors with bright light which makes it more difficult to read from a screen even at full brightness setting. It should not require copy-pasting but instead be able to open documents in a variety of formats. It should read naturally, not like a mindless machine.

Where there's a need, there's a way! I decided I'll make it my hobby project and I started tinkering away. I do bit by bit, an hour of work here and there where I can squeeze it in. This week I finally made a breakthrough progress and got the app to a stage where I can actually show it to someone else.

Here's a short demo of my minimum viable product:

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