Apple pips its rivals with the iPod that talks

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FROM Walkman to Talkman. Not content with changing the world's music-listening habits, Apple has come up with another innovation: the talking iPod.

A new generation of machines will use sophisticated software to convert the names of bands, albums and individual tracks into recognisable speech.

The new iPod will tell you what it is about to play, removing the need for users to look at the screen while selecting music, and making the device safer and easier to use while driving, cycling or in badly-lit locations.

Crucially, the talking machines could give the iPod a badly-needed new competitive edge in the hotly-contested digital music player market.

The iconic machines were last week reported to have lost some of their sheen, with consumers following a series of technical problems and controversy surrounding the working conditions of those who make them. To make matters worse, software giant Microsoft is said to be working on its own iPod-bashing digital music player.

Apple has flatly refused to comment on the design, but a patent lodged by the company in the United States makes clear the sixth generation of iPods will be able to convert those famous text menus into speech.

The ingenious system will rely on home PC processing power and clever software. The computer being used to download tracks will analyse each album title, song name and artist and convert them into sound files. These will be loaded into the iPod, along with the song files.

Users of the music players will still operate the Clickwheel as normal, but hear the names of songs and bands through their headphones.

The patent reveals the idea is driven largely by safety considerations.

It states: "A user will have difficulty navigating the interface in 'eyes-busy' situations.

"Such activities include, for example, driving an automobile, exercising and crossing the street."

The patent also makes clear that text-to-speech technology is likely to spread to other hand-held electronic devices such as mobile phones and palm-top computers.

The move is expected to spark a new digital player war as competing manufacturers attempt to cram more and more features into their digital music players in a bid to keep up.

iPods have recently begun losing favour with consumers, amid claims of poor working conditions at a Chinese factory where the devices are made.

Microsoft is reported to be planning a digital music player with wireless internet capabilities, removing the need for a PC to download music.

The firm is believed to be keen to break Apple's stranglehold on the download market with its iTunes software.

The iPod and iTunes enjoy market share of about 80% in the US and the UK, as well as more than half the online music market in Europe as a whole.

Sony is also believed to be working on a wireless product that can download music and video broadcasts in venues such as concert halls and even shops. The firm filed a patent in 2004 which states that compressed files could be sent to concert-goers with footage from the concert they had just seen.

Converting text into speech has been a major goal of the computer industry for decades, but early versions of the technology struggled with difficult words and names.

It also requires formidable computer processing power to carry out the difficult conversion.

But Apple says its system will break down words in a new way that makes it possible to pronounce perfectly even the most obscure song titles and artist names.

It also proposes using "voice talent" - such as famous actors - to make the speech more human and add in the celebrity factor.

The patent also proposes using different voice "characteristics", such as gender, for different sections of the iPod menus.

Professor Steve Renals, a speech technology expert at Edinburgh University, said: "It is possible to create very high quality text-to-voices these days.

"We have seen some already used in mobile phones, but it has struggled in the past with difficult words and names. The technology is much better now and can cope with most things."

Safety experts have raised concerns over cyclists, pedestrians and motorists being involved in accidents when they are distracted by their digital music devices.

Last month, a teenager from Preston was killed while listening to his iPod on his bike when he collided with a tractor. Another teenager, Kathryn Thomas, caused a fatal road accident last year when she took her eyes off the road to show a friend how to use her iPod. Roger Vincent, spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, said: "If people don't need to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel then there are clear benefits to that.

"Provided there is a sensible approach and the technology is used in a way that it is intended, it could make using such devices far safer.

"There are concerns, though, about the isolation from surroundings that wearing earphones creates, and this can cause serious accidents, particularly among cyclists."