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February 17th, 2010

Customized text-to-speech and Roger Ebert

You’ve probably seen the pointers to the Esquire article about Roger Ebert. If you haven’t read it, you really must.

I just wanted to pull one part out of all of this that I found particularly interesting. Ebert, as you know, hasn’t been able to speak for several years. Among his many communication tools is a text-to-speech engine. What I didn’t realize is that there are companies that can customize the voice in a text-to-speech application for people who have recorded enough of their speech before, say, an accident or surgery. Fortunately, Ebert was certainly a well-recorded individual, so soon he’ll be able to speak using something resembling his own voice:

Ebert is waiting for a Scottish company called CereProc to give him some of his former voice back. He found it on the Internet, where he spends a lot of his time. CereProc tailors text-to-speech software for voiceless customers so that they don’t all have to sound like Stephen Hawking. They have catalog voices — Heather, Katherine, Sarah, and Sue — with regional Scottish accents, but they will also custom-build software for clients who had the foresight to record their voices at length before they lost them. Ebert spent all those years on TV, and he also recorded four or five DVD commentaries in crystal-clear digital audio. The average English-speaking person will use about two thousand different words over the course of a given day. CereProc is mining Ebert’s TV tapes and DVD commentaries for those words, and the words it cannot find, it will piece together syllable by syllable. When CereProc finishes its work, Roger Ebert won’t sound exactly like Roger Ebert again, but he will sound more like him than Alex does. There might be moments, when he calls for Chaz from another room or tells her that he loves her and says goodnight — he’s a night owl; she prefers mornings — when they both might be able to close their eyes and pretend that everything is as it was.

Pretty amazing, really. And for purely selfish reasons, I would kind of like to hear Ebert’s voice reciting a movie review again.

Posted in Pop Culture, Technology

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