Finding your voice with VocaliD

Credit: www.VocaliD.co

What would you do if your voice was permanently taken from you? Over ten million people live with voicelessness due to illness or degenerative conditions and rely on text-to-speech devices, but they all speak with the exact same voice. VocaliD is here to change that by humanizing the voice inside speaking devices

Young or old, male or female, Irish or English, bold or timid, our voice represents who we are as individuals. However, despite our differences there is one thing that unites those who use text-to-speech technology – a computerised voice. Not only is it void of emotion, but it is empty of personality.

Academic Rupal Patel, a professor at Northeastern University, Boston, is dedicated to provide people using synthetic speech the opportunity to get their voice back. Using her knowledge of speech and technology Rupal founded VocaliD, which has been giving people their voices back since 2015.

PIONEERING

“This is very important technology. If someone has never spoken then it is as though they have never really been heard in their own voice. If they have spoken before then they know how important their own voice is in terms of forming relationships,” says Rupal.

VocaliD is a voice technology company creating customised digital voices for people who are unable to speak. There are many reasons a person might lose their voice, from illness to degenerative conditions including motor neuron disease (MND).

One of the most famous users of text-to-speech technology is professor Stephen Hawking, despite coming from Oxford his machine speaks in a computerized American accent. VocaliD is reshaping how we interact with intelligent speaking devices.

TECHNOLOGY

The technology provides two services: one for people losing their voice and one for those who have never spoken. Participants able to speak can bank, or donate, their voice via the VocaliD website or a custom voice is created for people with no ability to speak.

“The blending technology allows us to take whatever sound an individual can still make and using our voice bank, we can find somebody closest to them to mix the two voices together before we train the speak synthesiser,” explains Rupal. “Matching happens using an algorithm. The algorithm uses a lot of different features: age, height, where they live. If you mix two voices together from someone who is very short and someone who is very tall, and different accents, you’re not going to get a good blend. If you can bring them closer to each other, then you can have a solution that is more amicable.”

By simply visiting the VocaliD website and reading the provided script aloud banks your voice free of charge. When it comes time to utilize your voice the team will go through the scientific process and algorithms to develop a synthetic voice.

EMOTIONAL

Each voice is unique and everyone has something distinctive to say. VocaliD is humanizing the voice inside the machine and the results have been overwhelming.

Rupal recalls: “We get so many emotional responses from ‘I can’t believe I can use my voice again’ to parents explaining they’ve never heard their child speak before – it is very emotional.”

It can also be a difficult decision to bank your voice – especially for those recently diagnosed with degenerative conditions. Rupal explains that although banking your voice for those with progressive illnesses is the main concept of VocaliD, it can be a hard decision to accept that you will soon lose your voice. Many users are those who know the exact date and time they will no longer speak the same.

“The biggest need we see is from people who have head and neck cancer because it is more immediate, they know in a week or a month that they’re going to have their tongue or their voice removed and they will never speak as themselves again,” says Rupal.

“I think with MND or degenerative conditions, they are dealing with lots of other things and banking their voice is not on the top of their list. Also, sometimes it can feel like giving in. What we’ve been telling people is to think about it not as necessarily banking your voice for yourself but think about it as being able to share it while it is still a powerful thing for you to have.

The people who do bank their voice and later are no longer able to speak through MND have been so grateful that we gave them some other reason than doing it for themselves because there are so many psychological issues when you are in that kind of condition.”

VocaliD is providing people with the opportunity to retain a sense of their own identity regardless of diagnosis and expectant outcomes. From losing your voice completely to retaining your own identity, this is a technology that is not only innovative but also essential.

Our voice is one of our most important tools, and it is a tool we need to protect. Gone are the days of generic text-to-speech devices, VocaliD is giving the gift of human voice.

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