Sunday, June 5, 2016

Donate your voice... it can change someone's life!

Most people take their voice for granted.  It's something I'm guilty of for sure!  Like any other human being on this planet, communication is crucial; as a business owner, a mother, a grandmother, a storyteller of my own stories and of others'I also have the privilege of singing in a choir, so I get an immense amount of pleasure using my voice in a myriad of ways. Heck, I've even had wrong numbers call me back because they like the sound of my voice - that was a laugh!

But did I ever truly think about what life would be like without a voice? 
The discovery of VocaliD, the voice company that brings machine voices to life, was a complete revelation to me!  It really helped me truly appreciate my ability to speak and realize that there are many who don't have a voice. 

I've now recorded over 1000 sentences for VocaliD, about a third of the way to completing my goal of 3487 sentences.  This means that I will soon be able donate my voice to someone who is a match to me.  Curious yet? Don't worry, I'll tell you more!   Hey, I even got this cool certificate celebrating my progress!

So, what is it all about you might ask.

I was so inspired when I first heard about Dr. Rupal Patel on an episode on Terry O’Reilly’s Under the Influence CBC show.  I was intrigued enough to find out more about her, so found her TED Talk: Synthetic voices, as unique as fingerprints.  After watching it, I was completely captivated and I knew I had to find out more.

It was her first story that got to me most, about the two people chatting to each other using their electronic devices; a young girl and a grown man.  When I heard her tell about these two people using the same synthetic voice, both sounding like Stephen Hawking, it had the same profound effect on me.  Dr. Patel said that it "hurt her heart" that this young girl had to use a voice that did not represent her; her age, her gender or her unique personality.  It was just so wrong.  You would never dream of giving this young girl an adult prosthetic limb... so why would you give her a man’s voice.  She knew she had to figure out a way to do something about making sure as many people as possible were given the gift of a voice unique to them.

There are about 10 million people worldwide with an inability to speak.  It could be because of a neurological disorder, something they are born with, like cerebral palsy; or perhaps it's ALS like Stephen Hawking, or a stroke, or Alzheimer’s.  In fact there are over 60 diseases where losing the ability to talk is a devastating complication.

Dr. Patel collaborated with a colleague of, Dr. Tim Bunnell, the head of a Speech Research Lab at a hospital in Delaware.  He had been working on reconstructing voices for his patients who had lost their vocal ability later in life.

There is obviously a lot of complicated science behind it but over the next few years, they developed a technology, which is now VocaliD.  Through reverse engineering, they can create personalized voices for people who have severely impaired speech, people who have never had a voice.

The basic principles are that VocaliD blends the speech of two individuals—a donor and the recipient.  They first record whatever sound the recipient is still able to make. Sometimes it’s just a single vowel sound, but each person has a unique vocal identity.  Someone like Samantha, who you will meet in the video, can make a sound... just an "Aaaaah..." but it's uniquely her sound.  It isn't much, just the tonal quality – the colour of her voice – but it’s enough to be able to match up the with a voice donor - someone like me... or you... so they can customize a voice just for her.

I'm really hoping that this will inspire more people to sign up on the website and donate their voice.  I'm finding it so incredibly rewarding to know that they have already matched me up with three woman who will now have a voice.  And it’s even more heartwarming to know that my grandson, Connor was motivated to sign up too!  I'll have to check out to see how he's getting along.  

Here's a quote from Dr. Patel's quote - I think it is perfect:

    "To give blood can save lives... to give your voice can change lives."

If you still have questions, here are the answers to some of the questions I had before I started:

Here’s what you need to know if you’re interested in donating the gift of your voice: 
Q: When can I start?
A: If you want to be part of The Human Voicebank Initiative, please visit and sign up to donate your voice, time, expertise, or financial support.  It’s easier than you might think!
Q: What do I need to do?
A: You need to be able to read or repeat short sentences that, together, cover all the combinations of sounds that occur in our language.  The more of your speech we have, the better a voice we can create.
Q: How long does it take?
A: We need about 2-3 hours of speech from each donor. (Though even an hour of speech can go a long way.)  You don’t have to do this all at once. You can take your time and break it up into small sessions of around 15-20 minutes, so that you can record your best voice. That’s why we need a simple website or app — so you can record whenever you want. All we’d ask is that you record in a quiet place. The better your recordings, the better the voice we can create.
Q: Do I need to sound like a radio announcer?
A: No.  We want and need all types of voices.  Each person has a unique voice, which can help this project in its own way.
Q: Will others recognize me in someone’s voice?
A: The new voice will have elements of your voice blended with the recipient’s voice, so it is possible, but very unlikely that others will recognize you — unless of course you have a famous or well-known voice ;)
Q: Why should I do this?
There are so many reasons!  First, you can help give someone a voice — that’s powerful.  But in the process, you can also learn something about your own voice just by banking it.  Most of us rarely give our voice much thought, but the process of recording can be made educational and reflective.  In fact, for K-12 donors, we hope to develop a curriculum that will supplement the voice donation process.


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