Device offers speech hope for disabled people

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For years Jon Toogood has struggled with the frustration of not being understood when he speaks.

But now the 46-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, is a step closer to having a much clearer voice thanks to researchers at Sheffield University.

A team of academics have developed a device called VIVOCA - which stands for ‘voice in, voice out communication aid’ - which interprets speech and translates it as a clear, electronic voice.

The speech device was showcased to the public yesterday as the university launched its new Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare, which aims to bring together expertise from different fields to help more people live independently.

Jon, who lives in Thorpe Hesley, said he thought the machine was an ‘amazing idea’ - and that it’s already helped him in his day-to-day life.

Professor Mark Hawley, director of the new centre, said: “Most speech-recognition software works with standard voices, so is completely unsuitable for anyone with speech impairment.

“VIVOCA is different, because it can be trained to recognise an individual’s way of expressing themselves, whether through unclear speech or basic sounds.

“The user trains the system to understand what they are trying to say, and from then on it can translate any sound they make into standard speech using a synthesized voice.”

Jon says he has been helping to design and test the machine for more than seven years.

“It helps me to communicate faster and more clearly when I need to, and it’s helpful in noisy situations,” he said.

“Not being understood can be degrading, as some people assume my speech impediment means I must have learning difficulties and treat me like child. As an intelligent adult, this is both annoying and frustrating.”

Jon presses a button to tell the device he is about to speak and, once he has said a phrase, the machine repeats it in a clearer form.

Ross Whitehart, who looks after Jon, said the speech tool helps complete basic tasks.

“It helps when he’s asking someone to do something for him. It’s definitely made him a lot more confident in social situations - when you go to a bar, it means you don’t have to order something for him.”

Dr Stuart Cunningham, who also worked on the project, added: “We’re really delighted with where we’ve got to - it’s great when you get to a point in a project where it starts to work for people.”

The CATCH centre will feature input from health researchers, engineers, psychologists, computer scientists and architects.

It will also house a new laboratory which mimics rooms in an ordinary house, but is fitted with cameras and sensor equipment to test new technologies.