Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Hearing Voices - part one

I've decided I'd like to be able to talk to ATC rather than pick options from a menu, so I'm trying out a couple of alternatives.  On the testbench are VoxATC and It's Your Plane (the full version of which includes the "SuperATC" option)  As I try their demos I'm going to post here mainly as a way of organising my thoughts.

Firstly, this morning I've been flying with VoxATC.  This not only gives you voice control, but replaces all the default MS ATC with one that operates with procedures closer to the real world.  To do this it requires the Windows Text To Speech engine to provide a synthesised voice.  After a brief but confusing test using the default Microsoft "Anna" voice for all ATC & AI traffic, I installed the freeware "VoxPop" voices and set VoxATC to use them for AI aircraft, with Anna remaining the voice of all ATC controllers.

One other feature of VoxATC is that it generates its own AI traffic, but is able to use aircraft models and liveries provided by any other traffic addons you may have.  The regular FSX traffic must be turned off to avoid clashing, and the level of traffic desired set .  But when starting up at Manchester International, I was pleasantly surprised to see all the gates full and hear a healthy amount of chatter on the radios.  I normally run these days with the traffic sliders set to about 50%, and VoxATC's 50% seemed to offer about the same level of business.

In addition to the more realistic procedures, I found that VoxATC's controllers directed me to take off from 23L for the first time since I've been flightsimming.  I've read that in real life traffic is generally split between Manchester's two runways, one for takeoffs and one for landings.  Default MS ATC tends to only ever send me to 23R, and only occasionally to 05L, which seems to usually be handling both takeoffs and landings.  VoxATC seemed to be handing the traffic in a more realistic manner.

VoxATC also came with its own specialised speech recognition training, which teaches your computer to recognise a selection of aviation terminology.  With this, and because it' tends to listen out for what it's expecting you to say, I found the recognition hit rate to be exceptionally high, maybe asking for repeats of about 3% of what I said to it.

VoxATC Pro's so far

Feels like a much more realistic experience.
VoxATC does actually prompt you with things to say (which I didn't expect)
Menu option allows "unexpected" requests, including the much needed "declare emergency"
The VoxPop voices have a nice mix of accents, rather than the usual all-americans.
VoxATC's AI seems adequate and because it's using TrafficX aircraft, it doesn't render that purchase obsolete.

VoxATC Cons

Lack of variety in voices.  Default MS ATC has eight different voices, which is enough to generate the illusion of talking to different people all the time.  With the current setup I've got one controller voice and five aircraft.  The only solution would be to buy more add-on TTS voice fonts which leads us to....
Cost.  The base download of VoxATC is about £50, which would   The DVD version is about £85, but that comes with an additional two "AT&T Natural Voices".  SAPI5 compatible TTS voice fonts can also be bought seperately, typically for around £25 a voice, which is expensive considering it's an addon to an addon to a £15 game.  I've found a very reasonably priced app online which offers a bundle of four high-quality voices for about £50 which would give a comparable mix of voices to the default.  I'd maybe like to add a couple of extra voices to that, so overall we're looking at over £150.  It does allow the possibility of adding more voices as time goes by for greater verisimilitude, spreading the cost over time.
Bad Pronunciation - Some things like mispronounced place names are forgivable, but the synthesised voices are messing up very basic words like "wind" (pronounced wined) that breaks suspension of disbelief.
VoxATC is very much a seperate program from FSX, accessed within the sim via a special instrument panel.  So things like your call sign need to be setup in VoxATC's own setup program.

I had a brief play with It's Your Plane last night, with admittedly mixed results.  Unlike VoxATC, the primary focus of IYP is to add a simulated copilot.  The ATC function is simply a voice interface to allow you to pick response options for the standard MS ATC system, either using verbal menu picks, asking your copilot to handle the comms or by parsing your voice input for the correct RT terminology.  Unfortunately the demo is restricted to trying out the copilot functions in a Cessna 172 (if ever a plane didn't need a copilot, that's the one!)

I had a lot of faff getting IYP started properly.  It seemed to work best if started after the FSX flight was was started and ready to play, otherwise the app threw out several non-fatal errors before finally kicking in.  One very annoying feature, but one admittedly shared with VoxATC, is that it insists on the US English voice recognition engine to be loaded.  Having spent a couple of hours running through the voice training sessions with the UK English voice engine, I was quite miffed at having to start again and so dived straight in IYP without repeating the training.  As a result, the speech recognition hit rate was very poor, helped slightly when I put on a slight 'Merkin accent.  I'm sure this will be improved once I rerun the training with the US English engine, but I suspect it will always be slightly less reliable for me because of this.  Another factor possibly affecting reliability is that IYP is listening for a wider range of possible options and commands.

I can't say I got IYP working satisfactorily last night, but I'm planning to put a little more time into it tonight.  But so far my impressions are..

IYP Pros

Additional benefits of copilot on top of the ATC functions (which after all is what I'm really after)
Uses existing MS ATC voices, so all I'll need is one or two really good voice fonts for the copilot(s)

IYP Cons
Still uses the existing MS ATC, with all its little quirks.
Again, IYP requires a seperate progam running outside D

IYP Maybes
Although it supports all the default aircraft and a range of addons, it doesn't support several of the aircraft that I want to fly.  Now just what "unsupported" means isn't quite clear.  It might just mean that the simulated copilot isn't able to fly and land the plane by itself.  Or it might mean that it can't access any of the unsupported plane's functions.  Finally, the unlikely but worst case scenario, is that it doesn't allow you to use the SuperATC functionality in unsupported aircraft (which since that's what I really want it for, is a big dealbreaker)  More testing and maybe some questions on the support forums will clear this up.


Other products in this area I'm aware of: Radar Contact: this looks like it replaces the MS ATC & AI voices entirely with fresh recordings.  From what I've heard in various YouTube videos, these sound like regional English accents, which while nice are a bit.... well let's just say having the Kuala Lumpur ATIS report red by someone with a broad Yorkshire accent is somehow worse for me than hearing an American accent everywhere.

Multi-Crew Experience - this seems to fit in the same niche as Its Your Plane.  Ad copy says that the latest versions include newly recorded voices, but are not clear whether it can still use TTS voice fonts (which as far as I can tell was how it worked previously). It does have a free demo download though, so I'll give it a run through after IYP.

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