Chapter 31. Emacspeak: The Complete Audio Desktop

T. V. Raman

A desktop is a workspace that one uses to organize the tools of one’s trade. Graphical desktops provide rich visual interaction for performing day-to-day computing tasks; the goal of the audio desktop is to enable similar efficiencies in an eyes-free environment. Thus, the primary goal of an audio desktop is to use the expressiveness of auditory output (both verbal and nonverbal) to enable the end user to perform a full range of computing tasks:

  • Communication through the full range of electronic messaging services

  • Ready access to local documents on the client and global documents on the Web

  • Ability to develop software effectively in an eyes-free environment

The Emacspeak audio desktop was motivated by the following insight: to provide effective auditory renderings of information, one needs to start from the actual information being presented, rather than a visual presentation of that information. This had earlier led me to develop AsTeR, Audio System For Technical Readings ( The primary motivation then was to apply the lessons learned in the context of aural documents to user interfaces—after all, the document is the interface.

The primary goal was not to merely carry the visual interface over to the auditory modality, but rather to create an eyes-free user interface that is both pleasant and productive to use.

Contrast this with the traditional screen-reader approach ...

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