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Ground-breaking exhibition highlights importance of speech technology

An innovative exhibition touring Yorkshire and the Humber is raising public awareness of speech technology, giving those unable to speak due to illness or disability a ‘voice’.

Launched on the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Persons with Disabilities, ‘Articulate: The Art and Science of Synthetic Speech’ road-show features collaborative exhibits and installations in public places, demonstrating the latest research into speech-synthesis technology.

The free interactive road-show is part of a research and public engagement project by the Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network. A unique interdisciplinary network of contributors to the field of computer speech, CreST is leading the way internationally on research into how improvements can be made to the quality and experience of speech-synthesis technology by encouraging artists and scientists to work together.

The opening event on Monday, 3 December, also features the premiere of a new micro comedy sketch film, ‘Voice by Choice’, written by and starring Lee Ridley, a stand-up comedian known as ‘The Lost Voice Guy’.

Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Arts Council England, the CreST Network is led by Dr Alistair Edwards from the Department of Computer Science, University of York and Dr Christopher Newell, from the School of Arts and New Media, at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus.

Dr Edwards said: “Speech-synthesis technology allows those who have lost their voice through illness or disability to communicate verbally. However, there is an urgent need for this type of technology to be more widely available, and for it to be more reliable and personal.

“By providing more public engagement with computer speech research using the creative and performing arts, CreST aims to help people gain more understanding of the benefits and limitations of this type of technology.”

The charity Communication Matters estimates more than 30,000 people in the UK could benefit from speech-generating communication technology.

Dr Newell said: “We are working with people who use computer-generated speech technology, companies and researchers who design the technology, as well as researchers in a wide variety of fields, to create more individualised synthetic voices. At the moment users have very little choice about the voice they can adopt.”

The ground-breaking interactive road-show features a series of collaborative exhibits and installations developed using cutting edge technologies, by teams of artists and scientists including engineers, poets, film-makers, composers and computer scientists.

 These include:

  • A sequence of poems delivered by an artificial voice medium
  • A collection of short videos, each imagining ways in which people who cannot speak might use speech technology in the future
  • Gaming and other controllers used to control a group of simple vowel-based voice synthesizers which can be used to create choral-like musical textures.

The launch event takes place at York’s City Screen Cinema and special guests include Lee Ridley, Alan Martin and Nicola Bush, who all use speech-synthesis technology to communicate. All three star in the comedy sketch ‘Voice by Choice’, which is directed by BAFTA award winning director Patrick Titley from the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

The sketch revolves around three disabled people all using computer generated voices at a dating event and the absurd situations that arise when all three use a device with the same voice.

Newcastle-based Lee Ridley is the only comedian in the UK to use a computer generated voice. Born with cerebral palsy, complications at birth resulted in his losing the ability to speak.

Lee Ridley said: “Everyone has their own voice regardless of what they sound like. I think that sometimes the voices of disabled people get lost and this is a sketch about that.”

There is an urgent need for this type of technology to be more widely available, and for it to be more reliable and personal

Dr Alistair Edwards

Alan Martin, from Liverpool, is a key member of the CreST Network and runs his own business as a creative dance leader, Mouse on the Move. Until he was 31, Alan communicated using facial expression and signs, but now a voice synthesiser has changed his life.

Nicola Bush, from Manchester, received her first speech synthesis device at 15 years old. She said: “I felt dead, but when I got my first voice it opened important doors for me.”

The free road-show, which is open to all, will be at York’s City Screen Cinema on 3 December, Sheffield’s Winter Garden on 4 December and the Hull Truck Theatre on 5 December, from 11am to 5pm. It will then go on display at Woodend Gallery in Scarborough from 22 to 26 January.

In addition, the York event on 3 December features three short films based on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices, including ‘Voice by Choice’, which were made in collaboration with Network members. These will be followed by a comedy evening with Lee Ridley. Limited tickets are available for the comedy evening and cost £10. For further information or to make a booking, please call 0871 902 5726 or visit www.picturehouses.co.uk/york.

Further information

  • The Creative Speech Technology Network (CreST), is an international network of contributors to the field of computer speech. Members come from a diverse range of backgrounds, all with the aim of pushing forward research. For more information on the CreST Network visit http://crestnetwork.org.uk/
  • The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800m a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

    The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.
  • Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. It supports a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2011 and 2015, Arts Council England will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country. www.artscouncil.org.uk
  • For more information on the Department of Computer Science at the University of York visit www.cs.york.ac.uk
  • For more information on related research at the University of Hull visit www.yo-yo.uk.com/chris_newell_research/