For individuals with speech challenges, text-to-speech applications can serve as a valuable resource for more natural communication with those around them. With common devices like smartphones, tablets, and PCs now featuring voice technology, developers are creating innovative solutions, which individuals who have difficulty speaking can utilize for more natural conversations with those around them.
Eric Zeiberg first began contributing to this movement when he was just 12 years old. Eric created HandySpeech – a handwriting-to-speech application for iOS that allows people with speech and hearing challenges to simply use their finger to write on the screen of their smartphone or tablet and have the text read aloud in a human-like voice. For deaf and hard-of-hearing people, HandySpeech enables them to have a two-way conversation. By leveraging the voice offerings of Nuance’s NDEV mobile developer program, Eric has crafted one of the most in-demand handwriting-to-speech applications available today.
The lite version of Handyspeech, available on the iTunes store, was just released, and we recently sat down with Eric to learn more about how he created such a successful application.
Nuance: Eric, how did you initially come up with the idea for HandySpeech?
Eric: My sister Julie, who is autistic and cannot speak, inspired me. I have lived with her for all of my life and always thought that there must be some way that I could help her. Also, one of my family friends has muscular dystrophy. She is a practicing physician and cannot speak due to her disability. She was carrying a notepad and a pencil to communicate her orders to her patients. Her husband asked for my help. He said, “Eric, you’re so good with software, could you create an app that can help my wife?” He suggested that there was no other app like HandySpeech available. HandySpeech benefits people who have lost their ability to speak due to disease or surgery: throat and oral cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, muscular dystrophy, certain types of stroke, among others. Typing can be slow and difficult, especially for the older population. Handwriting is more natural for most people.
It’s a terrific accomplishment at such a young age – how did you develop the technical expertise to create the application?
Developing this app was challenging, but fun. I started working on it when I was 11. I have always been very interested in computers and have grown very fond of programming and computer science in general. Even when I was very little, I knew how to play games and surf the Internet (I used Internet Explorer, but don’t judge – I was very little at the time!).
What were some of the first steps that you took to create the application?
First, I watched some tutorials on how to code for iOS on YouTube. That’s where I learned most of the process. I also used the Internet for troubleshooting issues – determining why certain things weren’t working and the right solutions for certain problems. That’s basically my approach to learning about programming. YouTube and the Internet will take you a long way. Before HandySpeech, I created a simple app, TalkingCal, to learn Objective-C and how to upload an application to the App Store. TalkingCal uses Nuance’s voice technology as well.
What does it mean to you to know that you’re making a positive difference for individuals with speech challenges?
It is so inspiring to know that HandySpeech helps so many people and changes their lives! We’ve had lots of messages sent to us saying that the app has changed their lives and that they can’t live without it. It’s been uplifting getting those kinds of messages and I hope to continue developing the apps and making people’s lives better!
Why was Nuance’s technology ideal for the application? How important of a role has voice technology played in the success of the application?
One feature that was frequently requested – particularly from individuals with hearing impairments – was voice recognition. We work very closely with the American School for the Deaf (ASD). Individuals with hearing impairments wanted to be able to see the responses of the people that they were communicating with. Voice recognition allows a person’s words to be conveniently displayed on a smartphone, tablet or other screen. This allows for a more natural two-way conversation for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
This is where we looked to Nuance. Nuance has the best voice recognition technology on the market, so choosing it for the application was not a difficult decision. Since we’ve implemented the voice recognition capabilities, we’ve received numerous emails saying that the feature is really great and that it is used every day. Right now, students from ASD are using HandySpeech in the workplace. It provides them with two-way communication. Nuance has made it possible!
Can you provide any insights to your future plans for HandySpeech? Do you have any plans to utilize Nuance’s technology for future applications?
We receive quite a few requests for an Android version of the app. We are excited to say that it will incorporate Nuance technology! Right now we are also working on a few new features for the iOS version, like a log to see previously spoken messages (ASD asked for that feature) and personalized statistics. My dream is to incorporate the newest wearable technology with Nuance and HandySpeech to create something extraordinary!
I do have some ideas about using Nuance for other applications, but for now, I will keep those ideas secret
HandySpeech was recently approved by Dr. Bernard Grela, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department Chair of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, University of Connecticut
“The HandySpeech app is appropriate for individuals who/ have a speech disorder resulting from a vocal fold pathology (i.e., affecting the larynx),” said Dr. Grela. “This includes individuals with oral and laryngeal cancers, motor speech disorders affecting the larynx and oral structures such as apraxia of speech, and patients who are placed on vocal rest due to recent surgery to treat vocal nodules or overuse of their voice. This app could also be useful for individuals with ALS and muscular dystrophy as long as they have enough motor control to write. This app will help to reduce the frustration and helplessness associated with the inability to talk.”
Ready to try it? Download HandySpeech on iTunes now.