Sunday, February 20, 2011

New speech technology helps Roger Ebert regain his voice

During lunch at the Media Lab last week, I told a friend that synthesized voices will never sound like the real thing. It was in the context of machinima, and an idea that I have been thinking about for the past five years (see the section "3D Modding, 3D Media, on my essay, "Meeting The Second Wave").

"Have you heard Roger Ebert's new voice?" he asked. I hadn't, but knew that the film critic/commentator was unable to speak, owing to the terrible effects of cancer. "Check it out, it's amazing," he said. "They used old clips from his TV shows to build a library for computerized speech."

Intrigued, I did. A demo featuring Roger and his wife, originally played on the Oprah Winfrey show, shows what it's like:

Note there are two synthesized voices he uses -- a synthetic male voice from a standard voice software program, and the new product developed by a Scottish company, CereProc. For decades, until the effects of cancer killed his voice, Roger co-hosted a popular television show that covered new film releases. Through the program, he developed a wonderfully smooth talking and debating voice (he frequently sparred and joked with his first co-host, the late Gene Siskel). CereProc was able to leverage this library of sound, so when Roger types a sentence on his laptop, the program "reads" out what he said, stitching together words from his old television programs.

Is the new speech technology from CereProc perfect? No. But it's much better than the synthetic male voice, and really shows where the technology is heading. I can see people in the future "training" a synthesizer using their own voice (or old audio/video clips) for all sorts of functions. It will be a godsend for people who have lost their ability to speak, but can also be applied to services ranging from voice mail/IVR, news programs based on the "voices" of famous (or obscure) people, and machinima.

More blogging about virtual worlds:

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