Giving a voice to those who can’t speak

Talkitt allows individuals with speech impediments to communicate easily, and be understood for the first time.

Talkitt allows individuals with speech impediments to communicate easily, and be understood for the first time (photo credit: COURTESY OF TALKITT)
Talkitt allows individuals with speech impediments to communicate easily, and be understood for the first time
(photo credit: COURTESY OF TALKITT)
There is much frustration that accompanies the inability to express oneself. For those who have never had, or who have lost, the ability to speak, the only options seem to be rudimentary hand signals or scrawling commands.
But a new technology developed in Israel aims to help break the barrier of speech impediments. Talkitt is an application for iPhone and iPad that uses voice and pattern recognition to identify words that users are unable to articulate, and repeats them in a computer- generated voice. A promotional video for the app shows people of all ages, with different mental and physical handicaps, seemingly garble words while holding a mobile device, which suddenly translates their speech into English. An older woman can now ask to buy bread; a young boy tells his companion, “You are my friend”; and a wheelchair-bound toddler tells the woman next to him, “I love you.”
Danny Weissberg, Talkitt’s inventor, developed the idea for the app when he found himself frustrated with trying to communicate with his grandmother, who had suffered a stroke.
“This isn’t standard speech recognition. We are using pattern recognition, which is personalized for the speaker,” he says.
Users begin by speaking a word. The app then shows a choice of possible words that sound similar to the utterance. The user can select the correct word, which the app immediately stores in its internal dictionary for future use.
The voice output is available in 120 different languages, making it a valuable option for the approximately 1.5 million people across the globe who suffer from speech and motor disorders.
“Language is the expression of our needs, wants, feelings and thoughts,” says developmental specialist Rhonda Whitaker, president of the Developmental Garden in Phoenix, Arizona. “It connects us and makes us active participants in interactions with others.”
Whitaker, who has no affiliation with Talkitt, specializes in a wide range of developmental issues, mostly deriving from autism. Throughout her career, she has witnessed the struggle of individuals who cannot communicate effectively, and she is optimistic about the app’s potential to help bridge the communication gap that many individuals with disabilities experience.
For her, Talkitt is an opportunity to open doors and eliminate the frustration of not being understood, allowing people “to enjoy a richer quality of life with greater developmental prosperity.”
The app has also gained recognition for its ability to help children with developmental and social disabilities. Deborah Finn, a speech therapist in a Jerusalem-based Kindergarten for disabled children, sees the everyday frustration of children struggling to communicate. She uses the example of a child who she says shows promise but hasn’t acquired the physical capabilities to speak clearly.
“There is a very large gap between his understanding and ability to express himself and communicate freely and efficiently,” she says. “He would like to be able to verbally express emotions, requests and experiences, but because of his motor planning, coordination, phonological and articulation difficulties, he is unable to do so. Even though this child speaks in short utterances, it is very difficult to understand him, and he is often unable to convey his verbal message to the listener. As a result of this, he is frustrated and has almost stopped speaking. This has caused emotional and behavioral disturbances that have had an influence on his general welfare and development.”
Stefanie Meyer, who holds her master’s in speech language pathology, expresses hope that the app can help her patients as well. As an expert on a multitude of speech disorders, she is familiar with the current solutions available – as well as their limitations – and she is enthusiastic about Talkitt’s potential.
“Talkitt will allow these speakers to engage in conversation without the delay that other speech-generating communication devices may cause, or the frustration of having a means to be understood,” she says. “The product could be a gateway to meaningful and functional interactions for those still working on increasing their speech intelligibility.”
Other speech devices focus on eye-tracking, head-tracking, and communication boards.
Such devices are expensive and often bulky, however, and critics say they are unnatural and inhibit users’ ability to express themselves comfortably.
Also, some of these products forgo producing speech in favor of using pictures to help communicate.
Meyer says the emphasis on speech helps remove stigmas and gives people the opportunity to speak freely.
“[The app] could be a gateway to meaningful and functional interactions for those still working on increasing their speech intelligibility,” she says.
The application has won dozens of awards for innovation, including the Special Recognition Award in the Deutsche Telekom Innovation Contest, as well as The Orange 4G Innovation lab. It has partnered with over 20 European entities, among them hospitals, universities, NGOs and technological companies. In addition, Voiceitt, the company producing Talkitt, is a finalist in the Boston-based Mass Challenge for start-ups. The company appeared in the Ted- Med Conference in September as well, and won One Spark Berlin, the world’s first crowd-funding festival.
While the product is available in select hospitals, specialty clinics and organizations, the company is looking to expand its efforts through a $50,000 Indiegogo campaign to raise awareness and officially launch the application to the public.
For Weissberg, the goal of developing this technology is to help marginalized individuals integrate and thrive in everyday society.
“Usually there is a parent, spouse or caregiver who understands what the person is saying.
But out in the real world, that person is alone,” he says. “For millions of people, it is very frustrating to order a cup of coffee. We are trying to help them integrate into society using their own personal translator. Our vision is to have our technology be smarter than the person who has been by their side and understands every word they say. It’s wonderful and unbelievably rewarding to be able to change someone’s life like that.”
For more information about the application: