Spring Flowers Bloom Early: DAISY and Buttercup

No, I am not changing the blog theme to Horticulture.  Instead, I wanted to write about some digital talking book developments announced two days before today’s official, and snowy (here in New Jersey) start of Spring.

On March 18, the DAISY Consortium announced the second release of Save as DAISY for Microsoft Word, and in the same announcement introduced ButtercupReader, a Web-based DAISY player implemented in Microsoft’s Silverlight by a firm called Intergen.  These are exciting developments, and worth taking a look at.

I will admit that I generally don’t rush out to praise efforts by Microsoft, but in this case, their support of DAISY is to be commended, albeit late in coming to fruition.

Save as DAISY, or in short, SAD,  is not a new concept, as products from Dolphin Computer Access have provided similar functionality for some time. What distinguishes SAD is its open source approach, and the fact that it is freely available.  It promises to provide every user of Microsoft Word the capability to generate a digital talking book publication based on the DAISY open standard.

So, does it work?  Yes, but not without problems.  Within a few minutes after installation, I was producing, or as SAD calls it, translating,  full text and audio DAISY books from my Word documents.  I was even able to listen to these books using Buttercup Reader (more on that below).  Feeling confident, I made a few, what I would consider, minor editing changes to the first document I had successfully translated, and then started the translation process again. Unfortunately, this time I wound up with no book and a corrupted Word document.  I dutifully reported this to the DAISY SAD forum, and await their response. In the meantime, backing up your source documents before using SAD is a good idea, or you may find yourself in a sad state.

In spite of the problem, I was impressed by the fact that I could start with a Word document and in minutes, have a working DAISY publication, with the audio narration automatically generated using the default Microsoft Speech API Sam voice installed with Windows XP.  I am not that enamored with Sam’s narration of my fine prose, so I’ll be exploring how to change the speech synthesizer SAD uses when time permits.

Can Save as DAISY convert every Word document to the DAISY format?  Short answer, no.   DAISY is based upon a model of structured, semantic markup, with guidelines available for authors to aid in correctly structuring their documents.  The current version of DAISY (DAISY 3 or ANSI NISO Z39.86-2005), uses an XML language called DTBook, designed specifically for representing the structure of books and other publications.

Converting any document to DAISY requires a process of mapping the structure in the source document to DTBook.  Microsoft’s Word format is notorious for the junk that results when converting to HTML, but Office Open XML has attempted, with mixed success, to bring some order to what was often chaos.  The key to creating a well structured DAISY book in Word is to apply the same rules we generally use for any accessible document authoring.  Extra care has to be taken, though, when using headings (e.g., Word’s Heading 1, Heading 2, etc.) to maintain proper nesting of levels, a key to creating the navigation structure for a DAISY publication.

Save as DAISY is certainly promising, but not apparently without flaws.  I would also comment that in Microsoft Word 2007, SAD installs as the Accessibility ribbon, which I think is a little confusing. Though, SAD, and DAISY are great developments for accessibility, the use of the label Accessibility may promise the Word user more than it delivers, especially for those already at a loss on where to find common accessibility features such as adding alt text to an image. Why not just label the ribbon DAISY?  Unless, of course, SAD’s goal is to add more accessibility related features for Word documents in the future.  SAD’s documentation also leaves something to be desired, and seems more beta than a release 2 product would suggest.

As a concept, being able to produce a DAISY talking book from a mainstream product such as Word is a significant step for accessibility.  Adobe should do the same across their products,  as has been suggested to them in the past.  It should be noted that Adobe has added support for saving as DTBook (or ePub) from within InDesign, a good first step, and FrameMaker’s XML capabilities can support DTBook. And, there is even a Save as DAISY plug-in for OpenOffice Writer.  Let’s see if other mainstream products will follow this lead.

Buttercup Reader was a pleasant surprise. This isn’t the first time that Silverlight has been used to build a DAISY player, as Tanakom Talawat has had a beta of his DAISY Now project available since last year.  And it joins other Web-based DAISY players such as Charles Chen’s cool Dandelion prototype.

As a Web-based player,  ButtercupReader comes across as slick, functional, and well designed, especially given that it is termed an early demo.  I have had my concerns about Silverlight, but perhaps now I will be a bit more open minded.  The developers of Buttercup, Intergen, state that they will be using the player as a vehicle for demonstrating how to create accessible, rich internet applications using Silverlight, and have a presentation and demo at MIX09 to get the ball rolling.

I tested Buttercup using Firefox on both Windows XP and Mac OS 10.4, and was able to read the supplied samples as well as my own local DAISY books.   Buttercup requires locally stored DAISY books to be within a zip archive, which meant that I needed to zip up the books I wanted to read.    Given that it is only demo, we can ignore that the bookmark feature is not functional, and a common DAISY player feature, speed up and slow down of playback, is not present.  However, Buttercup is a great start, and I hope the developers follow through and turn it into a full product.