Webby for Good is a collaborative program formed by The Webby Awards and WP Engine to showcase Webby-recognized projects built to change the world.
What’s the elevator pitch for your project?
Project Revoice uses a unique deep learning algorithm to analyze the DNA of a person’s voice and create a complete digital voice clone. When integrated with text-to-speech devices, this gives people with ALS the ability to speak freely and naturally in their own voice, even after they physically can’t.
What was the impetus for this project? What real-world challenge were you trying to solve?
In 2016 we found that advanced voice technology was on the rise, but mainly used for commercial purposes like Google’s Alexa, Siri, and more, and we wanted to see if there could be a more human purpose for it. We realised that there is a disease – ALS, which is also known as Motor Neurone Disease – that among other symptoms steals people’s voices. We knew this much 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 soon learned that in the years since the Ice Bucket Challenge, Pat had lost his own voice to ALS.
Even when Pat's voiced had been cloned and we travelled to New York to give it back to him, we were unsure of how he'd react. Because even though we thought it sounded like him, we were nervous that he and his loved ones would feel it didn't. The moment that settled it for us was the first time we met Pat, and we played him sneak peek of the speech he had written for us, which he would deliver to his family the next day. The moment Pat heard his voice again was unforgettable and the happiness we saw on his face was the proof we needed that this was going to work.
Once you settled on your idea, what was your first step in moving it forward?
We contacted the ALS Association with a simple idea: to give Pat Quinn, the man who gave ALS a voice, his own voice back. To rebuild Pat’s voice, we had to create a databank of audio for our technology partner's algorithm to work with. Since Pat hadn’t banked any audio of himself before ALS took his voice, our challenge was to build a sufficient library of audio from old Ice Bucket interviews and speeches found online.
Was there a moment during the project where you ran into a hurdle; or faced a problem you didn’t know how to solve? Take us to this moment, what happened and what did you do next?
The first attempt at cloning Pat’s voice didn’t work. Half the words disappeared and the rest were slurry. This was due to the varying/poor quality of the raw material (YouTube clips, live interviews) we had to work with. This meant we had to create his voice bank again from scratch, once more going over hundreds of files and working hard with the sound studio to make everything as clean and unified as possible.
Did the real-world impact meet your expectations? Can you share an example?
In short, our aim with Project Revoice was to inspire hope for the ALS/MND community. ALS is a ruthless disease that takes and takes and takes, and while other campaigns have successfully raised awareness and funds, Project Revoice is the first campaign to truly take something back. As of now, through our partnership with Lyrebird, ALS patients can now clone their voices online. We are also currently in the final stages of launching a custom platform design for eye-gaze interaction, so people with ALS can easily access and use their Revoice every day.
What technologies/media did you use to develop this project (AI, Social Media, WordPress, etc.)?
The voice technology itself uses a cloud-based AI algorithm to recognize and duplicate the unique characteristics of your voice to create a complete digital clone of your voice. When integrated with text-to-speech devices, this gives people with ALS the ability to speak freely and naturally in their own voice, even after they physically can’t. The campaign itself relied on owned and earned media only, including a Wordpress website, The ALS Association's social channels, and PR.
Was the tech/medium you chose crucial to conveying your message? If so, why?
This project could not have been done without Lyrebird's voice cloning technology, which Pat could access through his own Surface Pro computer equipped with a Tobii eye-gaze tracker.
How did this project defy your expectations?
The technical difficulty and emotional stress making this project happen and getting it right for such a vulnerable community was incredibly taxing. But the love, support, and overall incredible response we got from all directions – within the ALS community and beyond – made it all worth it.
How will you use technology in future work to create inspiring, cutting-edge projects that also make a difference in people’s lives?
We've been so amazed by how something so technically complex can achieve something so beautifully simple and human. This is how we hope to use technology in the future; to help improve lives and inspire others to do the same.