Film critic Roger Ebert is pictured on the latest Esquire magazine cover
A US film critic deprived of speech by cancer has been given his voice back thanks to a British research team. Roger Ebert, 67, lost the ability to speak almost four years ago, following life-saving surgery on his throat.
He has since relied on hand-written notes, a form of sign language and a basic voice synthesiser to communicate.
Now a company based at the University of Edinburgh is using new computer technology to let him communicate with his own voice once again.
Mr Ebert is said to be ”excited” about the move and he is expected to demonstrate the system in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Scottish firm CereProc is the company behind the development.
Chief technical officer Matthew Aylett said a prototype was delivered to Mr Ebert two days ago.
He said: ”When Roger first heard it, he was very excited because he never thought he’d be able to communicate in his own voice again.
”We’re very happy to have been able to use our technology in a way which is helping someone express themselves.”
CereProc works with ”text-to-speech” technology and specialises in producing voices which have character and emotion.
The research team became involved with Mr Ebert after he found out about their work online and contacted them last summer.
Fortunately for the veteran movie critic, his years of TV appearances and numerous DVD commentaries meant the research team had a wealth of audio material to draw upon.
The company was able to painstakingly reconstruct his voice by mining the recordings.
New words and sentences were produced by piecing together snippets of the recordings.
The end result is a comprehensive database of words and a system which can ”speak” any typed sentence in the voice he had before his operation.
The sounds can also be tweaked by him to get the right intonation and emphasis across.
Dr Aylett said: ”One of the things that we specialise in is trying to produce voices which have got a bit of character and don’t sound neutral or boring.
”Conventional speech synthesis normally involves recording the data very carefully in a studio, where we can control what people say and the environment it’s recorded in.
”In this case we’re using audio that has been recorded for commentaries on Casablanca or Citizen Kane, for example.
”We have to take this audio and try and produce something which sounds smooth and natural.
”This synthesis sounds very much like a natural voice. It’s very important for us that the voices we’re trying to reconstruct sound as close as possible to the original speaker.” It is believed to be the first time that archive audio material has been used to benefit the speaker.
Dr Aylett said: ”This is the first time we’ve actually built a specific voice for someone who needs it.
”Roger Ebert is hoping to use it to produce his blog as an audio piece and he’s even thinking he could maybe use it on radio and television.” Dr Aylett said the technology has moved on ”dramatically” from the type of speech system developed in the 1980s and famously used by Professor Stephen Hawking.
He said: ”Stephen Hawking is now identified by that voice, so he doesn’t want to change it.
”The difference here is the voice we’re giving Roger Ebert is actually the same voice he had before he had surgery.
”When he uses it, people who listened to his commentaries in the past as a broadcaster will recognise his voice.
”Both are examples of the way the voice is so central to who we are as people and so much of our character and personality is expressed by the use of our voice.”