Nat Grupp, a man in his thirties who lives in Philadelphia, loves to talk sports. With a passion for his hometown teams, he has a wealth of opinions about the Phillies, the Eagles, the 76ers, and the Flyers.
Grupp likes to keep up with the latest in local sports, but that hasn’t always been easy. He lives with cerebral palsy, which has made his ability to move and communicate without outside assistance more difficult. As a result, Grupp has long relied on his father to turn on the TV so he could watch the news or tune into a game.
Initially, Amazon's Alexa seemed like the perfect fit to give Grupp more independence, but the voice service had difficulty understanding him. Now, with new technology from Voiceitt and Alexa, Grupp can follow sports on his own terms. He can also use his voice to turn lights off and on, see friends and family via the Drop In feature, and change TV channels—all essential facets of his life. “It feels like a new superpower,” he said.
Grupp has been part of Voiceitt's pilot program since late 2019, helping the team develop, improve, and expand this technology that enables people with speech disabilities to talk to Alexa and communicate with friends and family. Voiceitt's speech recognition app integrates with Alexa to learn to understand an individual's speech, offering access to communications and smart home technology that so many of us use without difficulty. Today, the Voiceitt app is available for pre-order, opening new doors for mobility and independence.
How it works
The Voiceitt experience begins with a simple training phase, allowing the software to better recognize an individual's speech. After the user repeats a set of words and phrases several times, the Voiceitt app builds an artificial intelligence-powered speech model that allows the individual to communicate specific commands.
Voiceitt was founded in 2012. Co-founder and CEO Danny Weissberg was inspired to build the technology over a decade ago, when his beloved grandmother had a stroke, rendering her speech difficult to understand. "The whole family wanted to communicate with her, but we just couldn't understand when she tried to say things," Weissberg said. "It was very painful and frustrating."
When Weissberg noticed that his grandmother’s full-time nurse was able to understand everything she was saying, he realized that there could be a solution to the communication gap. "I began to think it could be possible to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to train software that would understand what an individual with a speech disability was saying."
With the emergence of consumer-facing voice interfaces, the power of Voiceitt truly emerged. "We realized that connecting or integrating our technology with voice services like Alexa could give an individual independence in their life," Weissberg said. "Suddenly, they have more options and are no longer reliant on a nurse or a spouse to turn on the TV and change the channel, to turn off the lights, or to play their favorite music."
In 2018, Voiceitt was selected for the Alexa Accelerator—powered by Techstars and Amazon’s Alexa Fund—a program designed to support startups using voice, AI, and other enabling technology to transform customer and business experiences.
"We received incredible input and mentorship from all different levels of the Amazon organization. The ability to make connections with diverse product, business, and technology leaders within Alexa and Amazon enabled us to connect with the right people and really helped us get our service to customers," said Sara Smolley, Voiceitt's VP of Strategy.
"But the support went even deeper than that. Peter Korn [Director of Accessibility for Amazon Lab126] taught us a concept that has become central to our product's design and development approach: the saying within the accessibility community of 'Nothing about us, without us.'" It is that spirit of working with their users, rather than just for them, that drove development of Voiceitt’s technology, thanks to pilot program members like Grupp.
Talk of the town
Of course, the journey for Voiceitt doesn’t end with today’s launch. "Both Sara and I see the world becoming more and more voice-enabled every day," Weissberg said. "Everything we do will become more and more based on voice, because it’s a natural way to communicate. So as speech recognition becomes more prevalent in our lives, it becomes all the more critical to make speech recognition available to everyone. Our vision is to make all the power of voice interactions accessible to people who cannot use it yet need it the most."
Grupp also has some ideas for Voiceitt's future updates. "I like playing the '20 Questions' game with Alexa but Voiceitt doesn't work with it yet. And when I want to use Drop In, I have to use this routine that my dad set up to get it to work with the app."
For now, Grupp is simply overjoyed that he doesn’t have to rely on his father for sports updates. With Voiceitt and Alexa, he’s able to get news whenever he wants it, and the team continues to build new features based on feedback from its growing community of users.
Today, people of all abilities can access the same technology that brought Grupp independence and joy, using voice technology like Alexa to drive meaningful improvements in their lives. That’s why Amazon is committed to innovating on behalf of customers and working with companies like Voiceitt to help make Alexa more inclusive and accessible for everyone.
Voiceitt's app will be released in early 2021 and available on iOS. Pre-order the app today.