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Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz Project Revoice Interview

Project Revoice gives ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Founder his voice back

Australian initiative Project Revoice today announces a global breakthrough in speech technology, enabling those who lose the ability to talk to continue speaking in their own authentic and personal voices.

To demonstrate the power of this innovation, Project Revoice has given Pat Quinn, co-founder of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, his voice back. Pat did not record (or voice bank) his voice before ALS [Motor Neurone Disease] robbed him of his ability to speak, but using footage from his many Ice Bucket interviews, Project Revoice has been able to rebuild his voice.

Working with Canadian software partner Lyrebird, Project Revoice uses state-of-the-art deep learning algorithms to create artificial voices that sound more natural than ever possible before. With only two-to-three hours of high-quality audio recordings, this model can synthesise the essence of a voice and build a complete digital recreation. By linking this tech to eye reader assistive technology, Pat Quinn can now deliver words in his own original voice.

Lyrebird explains: "We have created a model which is able to identify what it is that makes your voice unique. We call this the DNA of your voice. Essentailly our model asks -how can I differentiate your voice from the other voices?'. It analyses the recordings comes up with the characteristics that make a voice unique and is able to generate phrases based on that."

Pat Quinn says: "This takes speech tech to a whole new level and means everything to how I communicate. I really didn't like to hear my old computer voice, so I often avoided getting involved in conversations. This technology gives me back a vital piece of myself that was missing. After hearing my voice through this new technology, I was blown away! For patients to know that they can still speak in their own voice after ALS [Motor Neurone Disease] takes it away will transform the way people live with this disease."

"Recreating Pat's voice and hearing him use it for the first time with his friends and family was truly inspirational," said Brian Frederick, Executive Vice President for Communications at The ALS Association. "The man who helped give ALS a voice now has his own voice back." In mid 2018, Project Revoice, a non-profit organisation, will be launching a facility for MND patients to record their voices via the www.projectrevoice.org website, so they can be a digitally recreated in the future.

Project Revoice was developed by creative agency BWM Dentsu in Australia. The Project Revoice team, led by Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz, collaborated with Lyrebird in Canada, Finch and Rumble Studios in Sydney and the ALS Association in the USA to bring this revolutionary speech synthesis project to life.

"We first starting working on the idea of using advanced voice technology over a year ago. Voice tech is most commonly used for commercial purposes, so we really wanted to find a way to use this emerging tech in a more rewarding way," comments René.

"This technology is 100% dependent on having consistent, high-quality voice material to work with. Since MND is a progressive and sometimes unpredictable disease, we believe it's crucial to get the message out now and encourage more people to start thinking about voice banking while they still can, so they have the voice material necessary to create their -Revoice' when the full application launches," said Oskar.

Users can find out how to record and preserve their voices and sign up for updates on Project Revoice at www.projectrevoice.org #ProjectRevoice

To hear how your re-voiced voice might sound, you can check a lower-quality demo version at www.lyrebird.ai

For information and support regarding Motor Neurone Disease please contact MND Australia www.mndaustralia.org.au or on national freecall tel 1800 777 175.

Interview with Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz

Question: What inspired you to begin Project Revoice?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : In our roles as advertising creatives we're always thinking of new ways to solve problems for our clients. But beyond that we also try to use creativity for good and create things that will have a positive impact on the world. Almost two years ago we noticed that advanced voice technology was on the rise, but that it was mainly being used for commercial purposes like Google's Alexa, Siri and more. Thanks to the awareness raised by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago – and the work of Pat Quinn, who co-founded that campaign – we knew that ALS (also known as Motor Neurone Disease) steals people's voices. We also learned that in the years since the Ice Bucket Challenge, Pat had lost his own voice to ALS. So, we contacted the ALS Association with a simple idea: to give Pat Quinn, the man who gave ALS a voice, his own voice back.


Question: How long have you been working on Project Revoice?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : About 18 months.


Question: Can you tell us about what Project Revoice does?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : Project Revoice is an initiative to help people diagnosed with ALS/MND communicate with their own voice even after the disease robs them of their physical ability to speak. This is achieved through cutting-edge voice cloning technology developed by our Canadian partner Lyrebird, combined with text-to-speech software and eye-tracking devices already available to patients today. Unlike current technology which limits patients to artificial computer voices (like Stephen Hawking used), pre-recorded phrases or words that have been mechanically stitched together, the voice cloning technology behind Project Revoice creates a complete digital copy of your voice, so you can speak freely and naturally.


Question: Are you able to explain how you gave Ice Bucket Challenge founder, Pat Quinn, his voice back?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : Normally, cloning a voice requires 2-3 hours of high quality recordings. In Pat's case, this didn't exist and by the time we began working on the project his voice was already gone. Luckily, Pat had done lots of interviews and speeches as part of his incredible work on the Ice Bucket Challenge. So our challenge was to sift through hundreds of files of varying quality to find the best parts, remaster what audio we had and essentially create a bank of audio for Lyrebird's technology to analyse.


Question: Can you please share another case-study with us from Project Revoice?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : Pat is the first person whose voice has been recreated through Project Revoice. We're currently hard at work rolling out the program to the wider ALS/MND community so that more patients can back up their own voices and have them recreated. Our first step is launching an online voice bank so that people can back up their own voices as soon as possible. These recordings will then be turned into more -Revoices' by the end of the year.


Question: Could you tell us about your Canadian software partner Lyrebird?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : Lyrebird is an incredible bunch of geniuses working out of Montreal, Canada. A couple of years ago they made a splash cloning the voices of Donald Trump and Barack Obama, which is how we heard of them. Lucky for us they loved the idea of helping people with ALS and worked really hard with us to recreate Pat's voice.


Question: How does it feel to know you're changing the lives of those diagnosed with ALS?

Oskar Westerdal and René Schultz : It's an incredible feeling to know you've changed someone's life. We'll never forget the moment Pat first spoke again and how his family and friends reacted when they heard his voice. Knowing that this project will help so many more people keep that unique part of themselves – their own voice – is the biggest reward of all.


Interview by Brooke Hunter



 




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