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First Published Friday, 20 March 2009


The power of (synthetic) speech

Jill Clark

A single spoken word takes three breaths and a great deal of willpower for Geoffrey Roberts: like thousands of people, he has cerebral palsy, which also makes his speech nearly unintelligible to those who do not know him. His limited speech is a source of great frustration for his otherwise nimble mind.

That is why a technology being developed at Barnsley Hospital and Sheffield University is nothing short of revolutionary for people like him. The Voice Input Voice Output Communication Aid (Vivoca) uses speech recognition technology to translate severely distorted words into clear sentences. It can also communicate entire sentences having heard only one or two key words.

The aid consists of a handheld computer and a wireless Bluetooth headset. Users will also be able to choose from a range of male and female recorded voices and regional dialects. Voices in the bank already include the Barnsley poet Ian McMillan and the Yorkshire BBC newsreader Christa Ackroyd. People who are slowly losing their speech – through Parkinson’s or motor neurone disease, for instance – can record their voice before it has completely deteriorated.

Roberts, 37, uses a wheelchair and lives with his mother and carer, Joan, in Barnsley. He is one of several people testing out the gadget. “The Vivoca has given me a chance to be taken seriously,” he says. “In my own way I have always been a chatterbox but with the help of Vivoca I can talk with less physical effort, which makes life a lot easier.”

Joan adds: “People are so impatient, and just walk away from him when he’s trying to talk. Now he can actually have a conversation.”

At the click of a button, the pocket-sized device can also give automated commands and responses to common questions.

At Sheffield University, Professor Mark Hawley, who helped design the aid, says it is one of the most exciting developments in years for people with severe dysarthria (imperfect speech due to damage to the nervous system). “We’ve found a way of making synthetic speech sound like a real person. We’re hoping to get it running on mobile phones too.”

Professor Phil Green, head of computer science at the university, says: “There are no other devices out there equivalent to this. It’s getting nearer completion and is just having its first field trials with the disabled population.”

It will be another two years before the aid is available on the NHS, and is one of a number of technologies being developed under a government-funded scheme called Devices for Dignity (D4D).

Source:   http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2009/mar/19/vivoca-synthetic-speech

One Response to “The Guardian: Vivoca – Revolutionary Communication Device Can Restore Power of Speech”

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