Flagship technology bestows the power of speech


The first speech recognition aid to give a voice to people with severe speech impairment is the flagship technology on display today [19 November] at the launch of the University of Sheffield’s new Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH).

The voice input voice output communication aid, VIVOCA, is the only technology able to interpret the sounds made by people with speech impairment and translate them into clear, synthesized speech – enabling users to communicate beyond their close family and friends for the first time.

Lead researcher on VIVOCA, Professor Mark Hawley is also Director of the new Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH), which brings together the University’s established expertise across health research, engineering, psychology, computer science, architecture, and social science to develop new technologies to help people to live independently.

“What’s special about CATCH is that by integrating researchers from so many different fields, we are able to look at the whole picture – not simply the technical issues, but also how a technology can help improve or reduce the costs of healthcare and how it can respond to the needs of the people who will use it,” says Professor Hawley.

“VIVOCA is a good example of what can be achieved with this kind of collaborative research. As well as computer scientists – who develop the software – the project has involved healthcare professionals and industry to turn an idea into a product which is now ready for market.”

Also speaking at the CATCH launch today is Dr Geoff Fernie, Director of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, one of the most technologically advanced rehabilitation research centres in the world.

“VIVOCA is an example of an amazing invention that will change the lives of many people,” says Dr Fernie. “It’s also one of many advanced technologies being developed at CATCH that are offering possibilities for greater independence and happiness for all of us as we grow older and inevitably encounter challenges.”

Jon Toogood, who has cerebral palsy, is one of five patients in the Sheffield city region currently trialling the market-ready version of the technology.

“Not being understood can be degrading, as some people assume that my speech impediment means that I must have learning difficulties and treat me like a child,” he says. “As an intelligent adult this is both frustrating and annoying. VIVOCA helps me to communicate faster and more clearly when I need to and it’s helpful in noisy situations. It also will give me the confidence to talk to people I don’t know as sometimes I can’t be bothered to put myself in a situation where I know someone may not understand what I’m saying.”

Two other technologies developed at the University of Sheffield will also be showcased at the launch: NANA, a technology to help elderly people manage and improve their nutrition and SMART, which helps people with stroke and COPD manage their conditions and improve their quality of life.

CATCH will also house a new laboratory – called Home Lab – which mimics rooms in an ordinary house but which is fitted with cameras and other sensor equipment. The Home Lab will be used to test – in ‘real’ situations – how people use new technology or devices in the home, to help ensure they meet the best design and healthcare standards.

The Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH) is focused on the development of new user-friendly technologies, which enable people to live independently at home for longer. Further information from  www.catch.org.uk
The University of Sheffield is home to nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics – and it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Find out more at www.sheffield.ac.uk

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