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New Technology Gives Those Unable to Speak a Voice More Like Their Own

For 8-year-old Leo True-Frost, who has cerebral palsy, the difference means a machine that helps him speak no longer sounds like a robotic man.

Voices are as unique fingerprints and thanks to new speech technology, 8-year-old Leo True-Frost has finally found his.

Leo was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that prevents him from articulating words. To help him talk, the confident, gregarious second-grader uses an electronic communication device. However, the synthetic voice sounds like a robotic adult man — hardly matching Leo’s youth or personality.

"It's very tough, but it's the voice that has allowed him to access the world so I love it," said Leo's mother, Cora True-Frost, who lives in Syracuse, New York. "He was initially very embarrassed and ashamed to use his talker. He would look around and didn’t see anybody else speaking with a device that way."

“When you lose your voice and you forever have to communicate through, let's say, a GPS-sounding voice, you're losing a piece of your identity."

Now researchers are developing a first-of-its-kind voice technology that captures the spirit of an individual’s personality. VocaliD, a Boston-based technology company, is aiming to address the frustration felt by millions with severe speech disorders who must communicate through computerized devices.

The most famous would be British physicist Stephen Hawking, who uses a synthesized voice technology, which gives his voice a vaguely American or Scandinavian accent.

"When you lose your voice and you forever have to communicate through, let's say, a GPS-sounding voice, you're losing a piece of your identity," said speech scientist and VocaliD founder Rupal Patel, a speech technology professor on leave from Northeastern University. "Our technology is basically swapping out the generic voice for a voice that is made from a person’s own little bit of sound.”

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People who are speechless still make sounds. VocaliD speech technology harnesses those sound patterns and mixes them with a real human voice. The donor voice comes from someone who is similar in age, gender and accent. The goal is to give a voice to a person who can’t speak — no two voices are alike.

Some of the donor voices come from middle-schoolers in California. Instead of a traditional fundraiser or a bake sale, the teenagers decided as a class project to donate their time and, most importantly, their voices to the Human Voice Bank, which is part of VocaliD. The volunteers spend a couple of afternoon and weekend sessions recording their voices, which then end up in a collection of almost 19,000 voices from around the world.

"Every hundred words take about 20 minutes so it's not that bad, and there are 3,000 sentences to do," says seventh-grade student Luke Renert. "I think everybody takes for granted how much they talk in just a day.”

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Like any developing technology, there are still some problems to solve, such as how to adapt the voices as people age.

But for now, Leo and his family they couldn’t be happier with his new voice.

"The idea that Leo can use his device and it comes out with something that we know in some way came from inside his vocal chords and diaphragm, it's just mind blowing,” says Jim True-Frost, Leo’s father.