Varispeech demonstration by Francis Lee, c. 1972
Francis Lee demonstrating his Varispeech time compression and expansion tape recorder, c. 1972.
Excerpt from Mills and Sterne, "Aural Speed Reading":
"In the early 1970s, Harvey Lauer became one of the test subjects for the Varispeech, a so-called time compression device designed by Francis F. Lee, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whom he met at a conference for instructors of the blind in Florida. Lauer was by then the technology transfer specialist for the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital outside Chicago, and he volunteered himself and a dozen of his students—blinded war veterans—after hearing Lee’s presentation about a new electronic tape player that converted recorded sound into a stored signal, which could then be sampled at a rate determined by the user, pulling out and discarding a miniscule fraction of a second with each sample so that the tape could be sped up without any change in pitch or loss of intelligibility.
Lee’s early public statements in the 1970s describe the Varispeech as a device designed “for the aged and visually handicapped,” with whose reading practices Lee was intimately familiar from his prior work at MIT on text-to-speech reading machines (Lee, “Time Compression,” 738). Lee intended the Varispeech to enable blind people to overcome a number of drawbacks, articulated by talking-book readers themselves:
The reading by listening rate is set by the rate at which the original speech was produced, normally around 110–175 words per minute. The second drawback is that the speed of listening is paced completely by the recording. One cannot skip sections or scan an audio recording similar to skipping and scanning a printed text (Lee, “Time Compression,” 738)."
Lee, Francis. “Time Compression and Expansion of Speech by the Sampling Method.” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, vol. 20, no. 9, Nov. 1972, pp. 738–42.
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Courtesy Harvey Lauer, now in the collection of Mara Mills.