Tag Archives: speech app

My baby, DialogCONNECTION, is 11!

4 Dec

This week, my company, DialogCONNECTION Limited, turned 11 years old! 🎉 🥂 😁

It feels like yesterday, when in December 2008 I registered it with Companies House and became Company Director (with multiple hats).

My very first client project was for the NHS Business Authority on their EHIC Helpline (which hopefully will survive the Brexit negotiations). Back then, whenever I was telling anyone what my company does (VUI Design for Speech IVRs), I was greeted by blank stares of confusion or incomprehension. It did feel a bit lonely at times!

Many more clients and thousands of long hours, long days and working weekends since, here we are in December 2019 and I suddenly find myself surrounded by VUI Designers and Voice Strategists who have now seen the potential and inescapable nature of speech interfaces and have followed on my footsteps. I feel vindicated, especially since I started in Voice back in 1996 with my Post-Doc in Spoken Dialogue Management at the University of Erlangen! 😎 (Yet another thing I’m hugely grateful to the EU for!)

We started with Voice-First VUI Design back in 1996, well before Samsung’s BIXBY (2017), Google’s ASSISTANT (2016), Amazon’s ALEXA (2014), Apple’s SIRI (2010) and even before the world started using GOOGLE for internet searches (1998)!

http://dialogconnection.com/who-designs-for-you.html

It’s quite frustrating when I realise that many of these newcomers have never heard of an IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system before, but they will eventually learn. 🤓 In the past 25 years it was the developers who insisted could design conversational interfaces without any (Computational) Linguistics, Natural Language Processing (NLP) or Speech Recognition (ASR) background and didn’t need, therefore, a VUI Designer. And we were an allegedly superfluous luxury and rarity in those times. In the past couple of years it’s the shiny Marketing people, who make a living from their language mastery, and the edgy GUI Designers, who excell in visual design and think they can design voice interfaces too, but still know nothing about NLP or ASR.

What they don’t know is that, by modifying, for instance, just the wording of what your system says (prompt tuning), you can achieve dramatically better speech recognition and NLU accuracy, because the user is covertly “guided” to say what we expect (and have covered in the grammar). The same holds for tuned grammars (for out-of-vocabulary words), word pronunciations (for local and foreign accents), tuned VUI designs (for error recovery strategies) and tuned ASR engine parameters (for timeouts and barge-ins). It’s all about knowing how the ASR software and our human brain language software works.

Excited to see what the next decade is going to bring for DialogCONNECTION and the next quarter of a century for Voice! Stay tuned!

Voice control in Space!

20 Nov

I recently attended The Association for Conversational Interaction Design (ACIXD) Brown bag “Challenges of Implementing Voice Control for Space Applications” presented by the NASA Authority in the field, George Salazar. George Salazar is Human Computing Interface Technical Discipline Lead at NASA with over 30 years of experience and innovation in Space applications. Among a long list of achievements, he was involved in the development of the International Space Station internal audio system and has been awarded several awards, including a John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, a NASA Silver Achievement Medal and a Lifetime Achievement Award for his service and commitment to STEM. His acceptance speech for that last one brought tears to my eyes! An incredibly knowledgeable and experienced man with astounding modesty and willingness to pass his knowledge and passion to younger generations.

George Salazar’s Acceptance Speech

Back to Voice Recognition.

Mr Salazar explained how space missions slowly migrated over the years from ground control (with dozens of engineers involved) to vehicle control and from just 50 to 100s of buttons. This put the onus of operating all those buttons to the 4-5 person space crew, which in turn brought in speech recognition as an invaluable interface that would make good sense in such a complex environment. 

Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

Factors affecting ASR accuracy in Space

He described how they have tested different Speech Recognition (ASR) software to see which fared the best, both speaker-independent and speaker-dependent. As he noted, they all claim 99% accuracy officially but that is never the case in practice! He listed many factors that affect recognition accuracy, including:

  • background noise (speaker vs background signal separation)
  • multiple speakers speaking simultaneously (esp. in such a noisy environment)
  • foreign accent recognition (e.g. Dutch crew speaking English)
  • intraspeaker speech variation due to psychological factors (as being in space can, apparently, make you depressed, which in turn affects your voice!), but presumably also to physiological factors (e.g. just having a cold)
  • Astronaut gender (low pitch in males vs high pitch in females): ASR software was designed for males, so male astronauts always had better error rates!
  • The effects of microgravity (physiological effects) on the voice quality, as already observed on the first flight (using templates from ground testing as the baseline), are impossible to separate from the environment and crew stress and can lead to a 10-30% error increase!
Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

  • Even radiation can affect the ASR software, but also the hardware (computing power). As a comparison, AMAZON Alexa uses huge computer farms, whereas in Space they rely on slow “radiation-hardened” processors: they can handle the radiation, but are actually 5-10 times slower than commercial processors!
Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

Solutions to Space Challenges

To counter all these negative factors, a few different approaches and methodologies have been employed:

  • on-orbit retrain capability: rendering the system adaptive to changes in voice and background noise, resulting in up to 100% accuracy
  • macro-commanding: creating shortcuts to more complex commands
  • redundacy as fallback (i.e. pressing a button as a second modality)
Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

Critical considerations

One of the challenges that Mr Salazar mentioned in improving ASR accuracy is overadaptation or skewing the system to a single astronaut.

In addition, he mentioned the importance of Dialog Design in NASA’s human-centered design (HCD) Development approach. The astronauts should always be able to provide feedback to the system, particularly for error correction (Confusability leads to misrecognitions).

Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation
Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

In closing, Mr Salazar stressed that speech recognition for Command and Control in Space applications is viable, especially in the context of a small crew navigating a complex habitat.

Moreover, he underlined the importance of trust that the ASR system needs to inspire in its users, as in this case the astronauts may literally be placing their lives onto its performance and accuracy.

Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

Q & A

After Mr Salazar’s presentation, I couldn’t help but pose a couple of questions to him, given that I consider myself to be a Space junkie (and not in the sci-fi franchise sense either!).

So, I asked him to give us a few examples of the type of astronaut utterances and commands that their ASR needs to be able to recognise. Below are some such phrases:

  • zoom in, zoom out
  • tilt up, tilt down
  • pan left
  • please repeat

and their synonyms. He also mentioned the case of one astronaut who kept saying “Wow!” (How do you deal with that!)

I asked whether the system ever had to deal with ambiguity in trying to determine which component to tilt, pan or zoom. He answered that, although they do carry out plenty of confusability studies, the context is quite deterministic: the astronaut selects the monitor by going to the monitor section and speaking the associated command. Thus, there is no real ambiguity as such.

Screenshot from George Salazar’s ACIxD presentation

My second question to Mr Salazar was about the type of ASR they have gone for. I understood that the vocabulary is small and contained / unambiguous, but wasn’t sure whether they went for speaker-dependent or speaker-independent recognition in the end. He replied that the standard now is speaker-independent ASR, which however has been adapted to a small group of astronauts (i.e. “group-dependent“). Hence, all the challenges of distinguishing between different speakers with different pitch and accents, all against the background noise and the radiation and microgravity effects! They must be really busy!

It was a great pleasure to listen to the talk and an incredible and rare honour to get to speak with such an awe-inspiring pioneer in Space Engineering!

Ad Astra!

UBIQUITOUS VOICE: Essays from the Field now on Kindle!

14 Oct

In 2018, a new book on “Voice First” came out on Amazon and I was proud and deeply honoured, as it includes one of my articles! Now it has come out on Kindle as an e-Book and we are even more excited at the prospect of a much wider reach!

“Ubiquitous Voice: Essays from the Field”: Thoughts, insights and anecdotes on Speech Recognition, Voice User Interfaces, Voice Assistants, Conversational Intelligence, VUI Design, Voice UX issues, solutions, Best practices and visions from the veterans!

I have been part of this effort since its inception, working alongside some of the pioneers in the field who now represent the Market Leaders (GOOGLE, AMAZON, NUANCE, SAMSUNG VIV .. ). Excellent job by our tireless and intrepid Editor, Lisa Falkson!

My contribution “Convenience + Security = Trust: Do you trust your Intelligent Assistant?” is on data privacy concerns and social issues associated with the widespread adoption of voice activation. It is thus platform-, ASR-, vendor- and company-agnostic.

You can get the physical book here and the Kindle version here.

Prepare to be enlightened, guided and inspired!

Develop your own Android voice app!

26 Dec

Voice application Development for Android

My colleague Michael F. McTear has got a new and very topical book out! Voice Application Development for Android, co-authored with Zoraida Callejas. Apart from a hands-on step-by-step but still condensed guide to voice application development, you get the source code to develop your own Android apps for free!

Get the book here or through Amazon. And have a look at the source code here.

Exciting times ahead for do-it-yourself Android speech app development!

Cross-linguistic & Cross-cultural Voice Interaction Design

31 Jan

(update at the end)

2010 saw the first SpeechTEK Conference to have taken place outside of the US, SpeechTEK Europe 2010 in London. This year’s European Conference, SpeechTEK Europe 2011, will take place again in London (25 – 26 May 2011), but this time it will be preceded on Tuesday 24th May by a special Workshop on Cross-linguistic & Cross-cultural Voice Interaction Design organised by the Association for Voice Interaction Design (AVIxD). The main goal of AVIxD is to bring together voice interaction and experience designers from both Industry and Academia and, among other things, to “eliminate apathy and antipathy toward the need for good design of automated voice services” (that’s my favourite!). This is the first AVIxD Workshop to take place in Europe and I am honoured to have been appointed Co-Chair alongside Caroline Leathem-Collins from EIG.

Participation is free to AVIxD members and just £25 for non-members (which may be applied towards AVIxD membership). However in order to participate in the workshop, you need to submit a brief position paper in English (approx. 500 words) on any of the special topics of interest of the Workshop (See CFP below). The deadline for electronic submissions is Friday 25 March, so you need to hurry if you want to be part of it!

Here’s the full Call for (Position) Papers from the AVIxD site:

Call for Position Papers

First European AVIxD Workshop

Cross-linguistic & Cross-cultural Voice Interaction Design

Tuesday, 24 May 2011 (just prior to SpeechTEK Europe 2011), 1 – 7 PM

London, England

The Association for Voice Interaction Design (AVIxD) invites you to join us for our first voice interaction design workshop held in Europe, Cross-linguistic & Cross-cultural Voice Interaction Design. The AVIxD workshop is a hands-on day-long session in which voice user interface practitioners come together to debate a topic of interest to the speech community. The workshop is a unique opportunity for them to meet with their peers and delve deeply into a single topic.

As in previous years with the AVIxD Workshops held in the US, we will write papers based on our discussions which we will then publish on www.avixd.org. Please visit our website to see papers from previous workshops, and for more details on the purpose of the organization and how you can be part of it.

In order to participate in the workshop, individuals must submit a position paper of approximately 500 words in English. Possible topics to touch upon in your submission (to be discussed in depth during the workshop) include:

  1. Language choice and user demographics
  2. Presentation of the language options to the caller and caller preference
  3. Creation and (co-)maintenance of dialogue designs, grammars, prompts across languages
  4. Political and sociolinguistic issues in system prompt choices and recognition grammars, such as code-switching, formal versus informal registers
  5. Guidelines for application localization, translation, and interpretation
  6. Setting expectations regarding availability of multilingual agents, Language- and culture-sensitive persona definition
  7. Coordinating usability testing and tuning across diverse linguistic / cultural groups
  8. Language choice and modality preference

We always encourage the use of specific examples from applications you’ve worked on in your position paper.

Participation is free to AVIxD members; non-members will be charged £25, which may be applied towards AVIxD membership at the workshop. Please submit your position papers via email no later than Friday 25 March 2011 to cfp@avixd.org. Letters of acceptance will be sent out on 30 March 2011.

We look forward to engaging with the European speech design community to discuss the particular challenges of designing speech solutions for users from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Feel free to contact either of the co-chairs below, if you have any questions.

Caroline Leathem-Collins, EIG  (caroline {at} eiginc {dot} com)

Maria Aretoulaki, DialogCONNECTION Ltd (maria {at} dialogconnection {dot} com)

UPDATE

SpeechTEK Europe 2011 has come and gone and I’ve got many interesting things to report (as I have been tweeting through my @dialogconnectio Twitter account).

But first, here are the slides for my presentation at the main conference on the outcome of the AVIxD Workshop on Cross-linguistic & Cross-cultural Voice Interaction Design organised by the Association for Voice Interaction Design (AVIxD). I only had 12 hours to prepare them – including sleep and London tube commute – so I had to practically keep working on them until shortly before the Session! Still I think the slides capture the breadth and depth of topics discussed or at least touched upon at the Workshop. There are several people now writing up on all these topics and there should be one or more White papers on them very soon (by the end of July we hope!). So the slides did their job after all!

Get the slides in PDF here:  Maria Aretoulaki – SpeechTEK Europe 2011 presentation.

2010 in review – Not bad at all :)

3 Jan

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,600 times in 2010. That’s about 18 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 9 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 32 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 5mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was September 15th with 326 views. The most popular post that day was The Social Media scene in Manchester (UK) is very sociable!.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were linkedin.com, mail.live.com, mail.yahoo.com, twitter.com, and facebook.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for voice activated lift, scottish voice activated lift, voice activated lift scotland, and scottish voice activated elevator.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

The Social Media scene in Manchester (UK) is very sociable! September 2010
32 comments

2

The voice-activated lift won’t do Scottish! July 2010
4 comments

3

Speech Recognition for Dummies May 2010
12 comments

4

The Loneliness of the long-distance … VUI Designer! June 2010
5 comments

5

About May 2010
1 comment

The voice-activated lift won’t do Scottish! (Burnistoun S1E1 – ELEVEN!)

28 Jul

Voice recognition technology? …  In a lift? … In Scotland? … You ever TRIED voice recognition technology? It don’t do Scottish accents!

Today I found this little gem on Youtube and I thought I must share it, as apart from being hilarious, it says a thing or two about speech recognition and speech-activated applications. It’s all based on the urban myth that speech recognisers cannot understand regional accents, such as Scottish and Irish.

Scottish Elevator – Voice Recognition – ELEVEN!

(YouTube – Burnistoun – Series 1 , Episode 1 [ Part 1/3 ])

What? No Buttons?!

These two Scottish guys enter a lift somewhere in Scotland and find that there are no buttons for the floor selection, so they quickly realise it’s a “voice-activated elevator“, as the system calls itself. They want to go to the 11th floor and they first pronounce it the Scottish way:

/eh leh ven/

That doesn’t seem to work at all.

You need to try an American accent“, says one of them, so they try to mimic one, sadly very unsuccessfully:

/ee leh ven/

Then they try a quite funny, Cockney-like English accent:

/ä leh ven/

to no avail.

VUI Sin No. 1: Being condescending to your users

The system prompts them to “Please speak slowly and clearly“, which is exactly what they had been doing up to then in the first place! Instead, it should have said something along the lines of “I’m afraid I didn’t get that. Let’s try again.” and later “I’m really sorry, but I don’t seem to understand what you’re saying. Maybe you would like to try one more time?“. Of course, not having any buttons in the lift means that these guys could be stuck in there forever! That’s another fatal usability error: Both modalities, speech and button presses, should have been allowed to cater for different user groups (easy accents, tricky accents) and different use contexts (people who have got their hands full with carrier bags vs people who can press a button!).

I’m gonna teach you a lesson!

One of them tries to teach the system the Scottish accent: “I keep saying it until she understands Scottish!“, a very reasonable expectation, which would work particularly well with a speaker-dependent dictation system of the kind you’ve got on your PC, laptop or hand-held device. This speaker-independent one (‘cos you can’t really have your personal lift in each building you enter!) will take a bit more time to learn anything from a single conversation! It requires time analysing the recordings, their transcriptions and semantic interpretations, comparing what the system understood with what the user actually said and using those observations to tune the whole system. We are talking at least a week in most cases. They would die of dehydration and starvation by then!

VUI Sin No.2: Patronising your users until they explode

After a while, the system makes it worse by saying what no system should ever dare say to a user’s face: “Please state which floor you would like to go to in a clear and calm manner.” Patronising or what! The guys’ reaction is not surprising: “Why is it telling people to be calm?! .. cos Scottish people would be going out for MONTHS at it!“.

Well, that’s not actually true. These days off-the-shelf speech recognition software is optimised to work with most main accents in a language, yes, including Glaswegian! Millions of real-world utterances spoken by thousands of people with all possible accents in a language (and this for many different languages too) are used to statistically train the recognition software to work equally well with most of them and for most of the time. These utterances are collected from applications that are already live and running somewhere in the world for the corresponding language. The more real-world data available, the better the software can be tuned and the more accurate the recognition of “weird” pronunciations will be, even when you take the software out of the box.

VUI Best Practice: Tune your application to cater for YOUR user population

An additional safeguarding and optimising technique is tuning the pronunciations for a specific speech recognition application.  So when you already know that your system will be deployed in Scotland, you’d better add the Scottish pronunciation for each word explicitly in the recognition lexicon.  This includes manually adding /eh leh ven/ , as the standard /ee leh ven/ pronunciation is not likely to work very well. Given that applications are usually restricted to a specific domain anyway (selecting floors in a lift, getting your bank account balance, choosing departure and arrival train times etc.), this only needs to be done for the core words and phrases in your application, rather than the whole English, French, or Farsi language! So do not despair, there’s hope for freedom (of speech) even for the Scottish! 🙂

For a full transcript of the video, check out EnglishCentral.