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Researchers aim to give disabled people their voice of choice

Posted on 17 July 2012

A comedy sketch about speed dating with a twist will be filmed in a North Yorkshire village as part of a research project led by academics from the Universities of Hull and York.

The project aims to promote greater public engagement with the design of synthetic voices using the creative and performing arts.

The sketch ‘Voice by Choice’ features 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.

The actors involved in ‘Voice by Choice’ are all disabled and use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices - speech-synthesis technology - in their daily lives. The sketch was written by Lee Ridley, a stand-up comedian known as ‘The Lost Voice Guy’, who also stars in the production.

Describing himself as “disabled, but not silent”, Lee Ridley is the only comedian in the UK to use a computer generated voice to tell jokes. Born with cerebral palsy, complications at birth resulted in him losing the ability to speak. He started performing stand up comedy earlier this year using an iPad tablet computer and is now headlining comedy clubs across the country.

‘Voice by Choice’ is part of the Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network, a research and public engagement project led by Dr Christopher Newell, from the School of Arts and New Media, at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus and Dr Alistair Edwards from the Department of Computer Science, University of York.

Dr Newell said: “The idea behind the comedy sketch is to show how people who cannot speak are frustrated by a lack of opportunity to make the synthetic voices they use more personal. We hope that by working directly with individuals who share this disability and the companies and researchers who design the technology we will be able to specify more individualised synthetic voices in the future.

“In the sketch, three people at the speed dating event are using AAC devices that happen to have the same voice. This is an absurd scenario, particularly when more than one user is speaking at the same time, but is based on the true experiences of our actors.”

CreST is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Arts Council England. ‘Voice by Choice’ is a recipient of research funding from the University of Hull and industrial support from Toby Churchill Ltd.

‘Voice by Choice’ will be filmed in Parish Rooms at Appleton Roebuck on 23 July and stars Alan Martin and Nicola Bush, alongside Lee Ridley.

Nicola Bush said: “I am a communication aid user and using a device has completely changed my life.  I am an out-going individual who likes to be kept busy and enjoys new challenges, so I am really enjoying being involved in this exciting project.”

The film, which will premiere at York City Screen Cinema on 3 December, is directed by BAFTA award winning director Patrick Titley from the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

Together with teams of artists and scientists including engineers, poets, film-makers, composers, computer scientists and linguists, we are developing exhibitions and installations using cutting edge technologies

Dr Alistair Edwards

The screening in December will form part of a United Nations sponsored International day of Persons with Disabilities and will mark the first day of the CreST Road-show which aims to raise public awareness of speech technology by showing collaborative exhibits and installations in public places.

Speech-synthesis technology allows those who have lost their voice through illness or disability to communicate verbally. The best-known user of this type of technology is Stephen Hawking, who lost his ability to speak through motor neurone disease.

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

Dr Edwards’ research centres on finding ways of improving the quality and experience of interaction between humans and computers.

He said: “Together with teams of artists and scientists including engineers, poets, film-makers, composers, computer scientists and linguists, we are developing exhibitions and installations using cutting edge technologies.”

Dr Newell, a former opera director, believes that rather than making computer-generated speech more realistic - which he says many people find slightly unnerving - ways should be found of making it more attractive to the ear.

He said: “The universities of Hull and York are working collaboratively on a number of projects which aim to find out what synthetic-speech technology can learn from the performing arts where there is already a good understanding of voice and what makes it attractive.”

Notes to editors:

Contact details

University of York
Caron Lett
Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322029

University of Hull
Claire Mulley
Media and PR Manager

Tel: +44 (0)1482 466943

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