December 11, 2000

By Karen Kenworthy


Mmmm... You couldn't have come at a better time. It's cold, gray, and damp outside the secluded Power Tools workshop. And heavy snow is predicted to start tonight, and fall throughout tomorrow.

But inside, it's comfy and cozy. A fire is glowing warmly, across the room. Sure, move your chair beside it, until you're as warm as your smile. By then our bread should be coming out of the oven. It's country white, with basil and bits of dried tomatoes scattered throughout the loaf. And let me know when you're ready for more hot cocoa. I have a whole pot, keeping warm on the stove.


Are you comfortable? Then guess what! My little Power Toy program knows a few tricks I didn't teach it. Remember how the program displays animated characters, called Agents, and causes them to speak any text you type? Well, it turns out you can change the way the Agent speaks!

For example, you can make the Agent emphasize one word in a phrase, or pause while talking. You can also make the Agent speak in a monotone, or a whisper. You can even make the Agent say one word or phrase, while something quite different is displayed in his little text "ballon."

It's all done with tags, little snippets of text enclosed by a pair of backslashes. If you place \Emp\ in your text, for example, the Agent character will emphasize the word that follows. Ask your favorite Agent to speak this text:

Hello Karen! How are \Emp\ you today?

And you'll see what I mean!

Most of the other tags include an equal sign ("=""), and some other letters or numbers, between the backslashes. For example, adding \Pau=500\ to the text you type will cause the Agent to pause for 500 milliseconds (half a second) at that point in his speech. Increase (or decrease) the number, and the Agent will pause for a longer (or shorter) amount of time.

You also can change the Agent's voice by adding a tag like \chr="monotone"\. This one causes the Agent to speak in a monotone voice, like the teacher in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Try this text, with the Power Toy program, just for fun:

\chr="monotone"\Good morning, children. \pau=750\How are you today?

If you don't like the monotone, add the tag \chr="whisper"\ and your Agent will begin to whisper. And the tag \chr="normal"\ to make the Agent return to his normal tone of voice.

One more tag let's your Agent say one thing, and mean another. It's the "map" tag, and it includes two parts. The first part is a word or phrase is spoken by the Agent, while the second part is a word or phrase is displayed in the Agent's text balloon. It sounds complicated, but it's not. Type this text into the "Tell Me What To Say" box of the Power Toy, and you'll see:

\map="Whatever you say, Master"="I still say I'm right!"\

The map tag has a serious use too. Some of our favorite Agent's have rather noticeable reading disabilities and speech impediments. To help them pronounce words correctly, we can place a phonetic spelling of a word or phrase in the first part of the map tag. The normal text, formatted and spelled any way we like, can be placed in the second part of the tag and displayed in the Agent's text balloon.

More Tags

I wish I could, but I can't take credit for these speech tags. They were invented by Microsoft, when they developed the Agent technology that the Power Toy relies upon. But I like the idea of tags so much I created a few of my own. You can spot my tags easily, because they are bounded by curly braces, "{" and "}", instead of the backslashes that Microsoft uses.

The latest version of the Power Toy understands four of my new tags. The tag {date} causes the Agent to state today's date whenever the tag appears in the message. Another tag, {time}, causes the Agent to speak the current time. The third tag, {dow}, let's your Agent speak today's Day Of the Week.

To put all three tags to use, ask your favorite Agent to say this phrase:

Hello Karen! Today is {dow}, {date}. The time is {time}.

If you perform this test, you may notice that your Agent has developed a stutter -- it may pronounce the day of the week twice. That's because the Power Toy uses Windows' "Long Date" format when it encounters the {date} tag. This version of today's date always includes the month, day, and year, and usually includes the day of week.

If you computer is configured that way, you won't need the {dow} tag (unless you want the Agent to only say the day of week). But you'll always have the {dow} tag available, just in case. :)

Text Files

Now you may be wondering, what happens if I place text inside curly braces, but it's not {date}, {time}, or {dow}? The answer is simple. But it may surprise you -- at least I hope it does!

If the new Power Toy encounters a curly-brace tag it doesn't recognize, it will see if the text between the braces is the name of a file. If so, the entire file is spoken by the Agent character. If not, the actual words within the braces are spoken.

These new filename tags, such as {C:\My Documents\news.txt}, allow the Agent character read e-mail messages (if properly saved to disk), and other text files. But they don't let the Agent read non-text documents, such as most word processing files. Before the Power Toy can ask an Agent to handle that job, the file must first be converted to text.

If tags such as \Emp\ or {date} are found within a text file, those tags are processed, just as if you had entered them directly into the Power Toys text entry box. You can even embed filename tags inside text files.

But be *very* careful if you ever ask the Power Toy perform that trick. You might end up in an endless loop, where a file contains a filename tag that references itself. At the very least, you might have an Agent who drones on and on, reading one file after another. My head hurts thinking about the problems misused filename tags can cause. So be sure to exercise caution when you use them.

Hear that? Oh, it's my oven timer. Excuse me for a minute, while I take the loaf out to cool. I'll get some more cocoa too, while I'm in the kitchen ...

Here you go. Don't you love these big stoneware mugs? Wrap your fingers around them. Feel the warmth? And the bread looks great! It'll be cool enough to slice in just a few minutes. I've set the butter out to soften, and I've got some Huckleberry jam I'd like you to try.

Speech Recognition

While we're waiting, there's something new on my Power Toy Web site I'd like you to check out when you get the chance. In addition to the latest Power Toy, version 2.3, I've added free speech recognition software you can download. This software, plus a little bit of hardware, allows the Power Toy to understand your speech, and respond to the words you say!

If you haven't already done so, download the original Power Toy files from my Power Toy page at These include the Visual Basic Runtime 6.0, the Power Toy itself, Microsoft's Agent software, and at least one Agent character (Peedy the parrot, Genie the genie, Merlin the magician, or Robby the robot). As always, they're all free.

Next, download and install the two new and free files. The first of these is the Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine. This software turns the sounds picked up by your computer's microphone into words that programs like the Power Toy can understand.

If you don't have a microphone, don't worry. They can be found for $10 to $20 at most computer stores and Web sites. They plug into the "Microphone Input" jack found on most computers and sound cards.

The second new file you should download and install, Microsoft's Speech Control Panel, is on the Web site too. Among other things, it allows you to "train" your speech recognition software, teaching it how to interpret your own voice. This training is important, your computer will have a hard time understanding your speech, and may often mistake one word for another.

There's a lot more to tell. But that's enough computer talk for now. Let's adjourn to the kitchen and finish that loaf of bread! We can always get together again next week. Maybe by then you'll have downloaded and installed the new speech recognition software! Either way, we can always find more to talk about, when it comes to computers, speech and Power Tools and Toys.

Oh, and if you see me on the road next week, or on the 'net before we meet here again, be sure to wave and say "Hi!" I'll be the one with the huckleberry stains on the front of my blouse. Now let's get in there and devour that bread. :)

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