Patients with severe speech impairment could soon have a voice, thanks to a new technology developed at the University of Sheffield.

The voice input communication aid (VIVOCA) is being showcased to the public as part of the launch of the University’s new Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH).

Jon Toogood is one of the first five patients across the Sheffield city region trialling the market-ready version of VIVOCA. Jon, from Rotherham, has cerebral palsy and his speech is very difficult to understand except by those who know him well. VIVOCA is the only technology able to interpret his speech and translate it into a clear, synthesized voice – potentially enabling him to communicate clearly beyond his close family and friends for the first time.

“I’ve been helping to design and test VIVOCA for over seven years,” says Jon. “It helps me to communicate faster and more clearly when I need to and it’s helpful in noisy situations. Not being understood can be degrading, as some people assume that my speech impediment means that I must have learning difficulties and treat me like a child. As an intelligent adult this is both frustrating and annoying.”

Lead researcher, Professor Mark Hawley explains how the technology works: “Most speech-recognition software works with standard voices, so is completely unsuitable for anyone with speech impairment,” he says. “VIVOCA is different, because it can be trained to recognise an individual’s way of expressing themselves, whether that’s through unclear speech or basic sounds. The user works with VIVOCA to train 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.”

Professor Hawley is also Director of the new Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH), which is bringing together expertise across health research, engineering, psychology, computer science, architecture, and social science to research and develop new technologies to help people to live independently.

“What’s special about CATCH is that by integrating researchers from so many different fields, we are able to look at the whole picture – not simply the technical issues, but also how a technology can help improve or reduce the costs of healthcare and how it can respond to the needs of the people who will use it,” says Professor Hawley.

CATCH will house a new laboratory – called Home Lab – which mimics rooms in an ordinary house but which is fitted with cameras and other sensor equipment. The Home Lab will be used to test – in ‘real’ situations – how people use new technology or devices in the home, to help ensure they meet the best design and healthcare standards.