Your Voice Could Be the Next Great Thing in Computing

her_loading_helixA headline to a post written by Backchannel Editor, Jessi Hempel, reads, “Voice is the Next Big Platform, and Alexa Will Own It.”

Hempel writes about the maturing of Amazon’s Echo in the coming years. How we’ll access information using our voice and not the keyboard, touch screen or other input devices we rely on now. Speak it, and it will come. Think Star Trek’s Computer on the Next Generation Enterprise, Theodore Twombly’s assistant Samantha in the motion picture Her, or the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s Not What You Say, it’s What You Hear

Part of the excitement of using voice input are the voice responses from the device. Retrieving requested information and executing tasks on demand is a natural extension of how we live with computers. The voice feedback should sound natural and genuinely human.

What We Have Now

If you own an iPhone, Siri responds when you utter a request. Asking Siri to do the same thing multiple times might give you a variety of verbal responses, but the intonation of the same response sounds the same from the first instance to the next. Changes in vocal texture are missing, and they’re what’s needed to make the experience more comfortable and life-like.

Could This Be the Next Big Thing for Voice Actors?

Imagine being booked to record thousands of phrases multiple times. Each time you repeated a phrase, it would contain unique vocal qualities. Then, intelligent AI programming, using natural language processing, would use your words to build responses on the fly. Voice stress, breathiness, pace, and volume would be part of the reply computation.

Maybe you would audition your voice from one company to another. Companies, like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, and others, could catalog voices and make choosing a specific one an option when buying a device like an iPhone or Echo.

You wouldn’t pay to have your voice hosted, but would receive a royalty payment whenever a client selects it as the voice for their new device. Perhaps in the future, there will be a need for a new type of agent who focuses only on voices for vocal response.

It’s Happening

Last year I was invited to record thousands of phrases for a cutting edge company working on delivering a unique voice to vocally challenged people. VocalID is transforming digital speech replacement with human vocal characteristics. Their charter is to bring speaking machines to life. They’re doing that by matching vocal efforts of people who don’t have the ability of speech with those who do and using special software to meld the two. The result is surprising.

What’s next?

Vocal banks may become a new opportunity for voice actors. More devices and situations for vocal feedback are coming. The companies working on AI and voice interfaces, like those mentioned above, will create more needs for vocal feedback and your voice may be part of their roster.

© 2017 J. Christopher Dunn

Do Tools Make an Artist?

At the end of September, I moved to the village of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. If you use Google Maps to search for Whidbey Island, it will take you to the Northwest corner of Washington State. It’s situated in Puget Sound, about 45-minutes north of Seattle and the destination of thousands of vacationers from early spring to late fall. The sights are incredible. Surrounded by water, mountains, pristine beaches and several historical landmarks, Whidbey Island seems almost magical.

 

The island is also home to many artists with talents that range from glass blowing, photography and jewelry making to penning novels, writing music and acting. You can’t go out without running into an artist of some type. I know a number of them personally and find that they know their craft and are willing to share their experiences. The wannabes are rare and the yet to be discovered are hardworking individuals who radiate constant energy and passion. It’s a great climate to be included in, and I’m very happy with the move.

 

During a conversation with my friend Gwen, a retired political events coordinator from Washington, DC, we talked about what I did for a living. “I’m a voice-over artist,” I replied with pride and enthusiasm. I have a great time telling people what I do.

 

Gwen replied, “Just about anybody with a computer and microphone can call themselves a voice-over artist. I’ve even thought about doing it myself.”

 

That got me thinking. Was she under the impression that no talent is necessary to be a voice-over artist? Was she indicating that with relatively little money anybody could buy the basic hardware and software to start a voice-over business? Hmm… I have a toolbox in my garage full of screwdrivers, wrenches and hammers. I know how to use each of them to do basic things around the house and never once have I fooled myself into believing that I was a carpenter or mechanic. I think it’s important for people to understand their limits. I clearly understand mine!

 

I agreed with Gwen and suggested it was similar to what people thought when digital cameras were no longer cost prohibitive. Everybody can be a photographer and take great pictures. Well, maybe. Give the camera to a novice or hobbyist with all the settings on automatic before they point and click. Presto, they captured a good shot with little to no effort. Give the same camera to a professional and they’ll take it off autopilot. They’ll adjust aperture setting and shutter speed then shoot the same shot with not just good but fabulous results.

 

The difference between the two is the level of expertise that the professional has over the novice. The professional is well grounded in photography and shoots intuitively to get amazing results. The pro understands their craft and has the artistic ability to look beyond what’s in front of the lens on their camera. They can break down a scene and instantly know best how to compose the shot and manipulate the settings before releasing the shutter. The novice doesn’t have a clue.

 

The same can be said about voice-over artists. I get a script and break it down because I know how to best read it for effect and believability. I understand how to work the mic for broadness or intimacy and I’m confident that I can edit the raw audio to deliver what my clients need. Can anybody do this? Yes, they can. Can everybody do it well enough to attract gigs and make a living? No, they can’t.

 

Another friend of mine, Mary Rose, who was part of the conversation, is a program host at the local public radio station here on Whidbey Island. She is also an instructor who teaches Journalism and Broadcast Communications several times a year at Ramkhamheun University’s Institute of International Studies in Bangkok. I’ve talked with her students by way of Skype about my experience of being a voice-over artist and she’s permanently added me to her curriculum as a guest speaker for both classes. Her students were intrigued about the voice-over artist business and thought it might be easy money and anybody could do it. It seems this perception is global.

 

During our chat about what makes an artist, Mary Rose suggested that I’d be an interesting guest on an upcoming episode of her show, Isle of the Arts. She agreed that not everybody with the right tools could be an artist and wanted to get me on the air to talk about it some more.

 

I agreed to be interviewed and will publish the audio to this blog once it becomes available.

 

A paint brush does not make a painter. A piano does not make a songwriter. A word processor does not make an author. A microphone does not make a voice-over artist. I believe that being an artist is not just about knowing how to use a tool. It includes understanding the process of manipulation and refinement to create a final product that’s polished and stands on its own without explanation.

 

Do you have some explaining to do?