Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What Do Opera Singers and Robots Have in Common?

Female robot by Hajime Sorayama
"The charity Communication Matters estimates that there are more than 30,000 people in the UK who could benefit from speech-generating communication technology, although not all of them have access to it. This number is likely to increase as people with profound disabilities are living longer due to medical advances. However, it is hard for robotic voices to command listeners' attention for more than short periods of time and, given that the majority of users lack the advantage of being able to expound on the secrets of the cosmos, they are understandably keen to sound as realistic as possible. But, says Dr Christopher Newell of the School of Arts and New Media at the University of Hull, sounding more human isn't necessarily the answer. The science of robotics has found that when devices become too human-like, people's positive reactions quickly turn to feelings of deep unease and even revulsion, and he believes this may also apply to artificial voices attached to real people. The phenomenon has become know as the 'uncanny valley' syndrome, the 'valley' being the dip in a graph showing the range of human reactions to a robot, and has been put to good use in many a sci-fi film involving Stepford Wives-style androids. Newell believes that it may be more fruitful to focus on making synthesised speech more attractive to the ear rather than more realistic. 'It's about finding an acoustic formula that gives the feeling that a person is worth listening to,' he says. The former opera director is running a research project, in partnership with Newcastle and York universities, that aims to find out what synthetic-speech technology can learn from the voices of opera singers. 'The technology can potentially benefit from associating itself with the performing arts, where there is an understanding of voices. In opera, you're dealing with the extreme end of human vocal capability, yet the voice has a seductive emotional power. We're looking at whether there's anything we can extract from the acoustic features, or the content of an opera production, that we can bottle and pop into a speech synthesiser.' His research is focusing on a series of performances of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which he recently directed for Co‑Opera Co, a training company for young opera singers. The study used technology designed by digital interaction researchers from the School of Computing Science at Newcastle University, and was funded by the Research Council UK's Social Inclusion through the Digital Economy project. The aim was to isolate times during the performance when audience members felt the 'tingle factor' – those goosebumps moments, as when Pavarotti hits that top C at the end of Nessun Dorma." [Source]

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