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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reading that speaks: CdA teen’s app converts text to audio

Coeur d’Alene High School junior Morgan Dixon is photographed in front of a chalk drawing of Outloud Reader, the app he created, at Coeur d’Alene Coffee at Innovation Collective on Tuesday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A Coeur d’Alene High School junior has created a text-to-audio app that started as a way to help his brother pass organic chemistry.

Morgan Dixon, 17, launched Outloud Reader a month ago. About 10 students in fourth and fifth grades who have dyslexia are now using it for studies at Sorensen Magnet School for the Arts and Humanities in Coeur d’Alene.

“My brother was at WSU and working 60 hours a week at a winery with a bunch of hard classes like organic chemistry,” Dixon said. “He wanted to make his book into an audio version, or just any of his books, so he told me that idea, and it started growing from that.”

Dixon said the innovation soon grew into broader uses such as helping people with visual and reading disabilities. In releasing the app, he has offered a trial-period use to some Coeur d’Alene-area teachers to gain feedback.

“I’m hoping to implement Outloud Reader mostly in school districts or private devices for people who have dyslexia or low-vision capabilities. It’s designed with simplicity in mind.”

The app uses the camera of a smartphone or electronic tablet to take pictures of reading material, Dixon said. That photograph is converted to text on the app that’s then read aloud by a programmed voice. Pitch, language and speed of the audio can be adjusted.

Dixon started working on the idea in January 2017. That March, he went to the Innovation Collective, a collaborative space in Coeur d’Alene for entrepreneurs to exchange ideas. That’s where Dixon met Dr. Stephen Moss, an ophthalmologist who encouraged Dixon to consider uses for the blind, visually-impaired and others with disabilities.

That learning-aid approach caught the attention of Melissa Mello, a special education teacher at Sorensen Magnet School who took up Dixon’s offer to show her how the app works. Now, many of her older students who have reading disabilities are regularly using Outloud Reader.

“When I met with Morgan and saw how the app functions, I thought this is going to be a great tool for my classroom,” Mello said. “It works to have any text read out loud for my students who struggle with reading, so they can take a photograph of a textbook, a novel or a worksheet page and then that image will be converted to text that the app reads out loud.

“They’ve been using it on my classroom iPads to take the picture, and a number of them have had it downloaded on their own devices at home.”

While the students are encouraged to read, the tool makes some studies less frustrating when students want to read more complicated books or longer text material.

“Instead of taking an hour to read three pages of text, it may take them a few minutes to read three pages of text, so the beauty of it is really the access. People who have reading disabilities are extremely bright and are able to comprehend tons of complicated material. It’s just the actual reading part that gets in the way.

“It can be extremely frustrating when you want to have access to information.

“If I had come across a tool like this anywhere, I would think it’s pretty incredible, but the fact that it originated locally in our community makes it all the more special. I’m excited for Morgan. He’s a pretty great person to be taking this on as a high school kid.”

After seeing successes among Mello’s students, Dixon said he recently had the Outloud Reader updated with a feature to convert reading material to what’s called OpenDelexia font, a specialty typeface designed for easier reading.

“At Sorensen, the one class really likes the app,” Dixon said. “These kids have reading issues, mostly dyslexia, and they have given me some fantastic feedback. The dyslexia font that I added was because of those students.

“I wanted to help them even more, just in case their teacher didn’t want them just to hear the information, but actually read it. This allows the students to take a picture of the book that’s in maybe Times New Roman font or another similar font and then adjust it to that specific dyslexic font so it can help them read as well.”

Mello has heard about the font that makes lines of certain letters either thicker or thinner, and modifies the spacing so that letters aren’t as close together, “so someone with a reading disability such as dyslexia may be able to discern the difference between the letters more easily.”

“I am familiar with the font, so we’re excited to use it,” she added.

From an early age, Dixon enjoyed science and often dreamed about design innovations.

While in kindergarten, he submitted an idea of a coin-sorting machine for NASA. The idea won him a spot to attend a state “invention convention” in Boise, but his family wasn’t able to take him, he said.

He can’t remember what the connection was between NASA and coins.

“But I was in kindergarten,” he said. “Yes, this is kind of not really new to me. I believe I also had some ideas for drones in the military. I was a very creative child, so there were a lot of weird things I was thinking about.

“But Outloud was the first idea that was feasible and I could accomplish as a teenager.”

The Outloud Reader costs $3.99 to download, he said, “and we’re reinvesting that into development.”

For basics, he thinks some people will use the app to cram or multitask while studying. He is enrolled in Idaho’s Dual Credit program, similar to Running Start college courses for Washington students.

“I’ve been personally using my app,” he said. “I had a midterm essay for my history class at college. It helped with research because I can listen to the book and type at same time, instead of having to read and then type.”

And he admits that some people want to avoid reading.

“Maybe it’s a laziness factor; It can definitely help people just so you don’t have to read, basically.”

He said along with Dr. Moss’ help, a business partner and mentor – someone else he met at Innovation Collective – handled program coding for the app. Dixon isn’t sure yet what he’ll decide about college, but for now, he is looking at ways to improve the app.

He wants to add more features, such as document detection software for blind users to tell them where the page is located on their device, or medical uses such capturing images from a pill container of dates and times for taking medications that puts the information into smartphone reminders.

Dixon added that his biggest challenge in launching the app is getting out and talking about it.

“I’m not the most outgoing person, so that was kind of hard for me just meeting new people and talking and trying to get my idea out,” he said. “I’ve never done that before so that was kind of a struggle for me to get past the I don’t want to talk to anyone zone.”