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New Voices For The Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets An Upgrade

March 11, 2013
Source: NPR Blog - Shots - Health News - By Alix Spiegel

Ever since she was a small child, Samantha Grimaldo has had to carry her voice with her.

Grimaldo was born with a rare disorder, Perisylvian syndrome, which means that though she's physically capable in many ways, she's never been able to speak. Instead, she's used a device to speak. She types in what she wants to say, and the device says those words out loud. Her mother, Ruane Grimaldo, says that when Samantha was very young, the voice she used came in a heavy gray box...

Today, fortunately, her voice takes up much less space. Samantha types into a special program on an iPhone or iPad, and a synthesized voice in the program says the words aloud. The voice, one of several types on the market, is called "Heather." That's a nice enough name easygoing and accessible but Grimaldo doesn't like to use the voice if she can help it.

Her mother has noticed that when the family goes out to restaurants, Samantha prefers to write out her menu choices. Apparently, as she explains to her mother, this is because Samantha has some reservations about the voice itself the cold metal sound of it...

Research by Rupal Patel, a speech scientist at Northeastern University, is working to change synthetic voices. "When a person speaks, two things are happening. First, the source of speech comes from the voice box, which vibrates to produce sound. Then, the mouth shapes those sounds into speech."

In many people who have speech disorders, it is mainly the second part of the system that does not work. "In people with speech disorders, the source is pretty preserved," Patel says. "I thought, That is where the melody is that is where identity is, in terms of their vocal identity. "

So Patel decided to capture the melody of a voice.

More: Listen to this NPR story online, download the recording (mp3 file),review the transcript, or read the complete story including audio excerpts of synthesized speech on the NPR website.

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