Wednesday 12 December 2018

Irish startup's idea to help children's speech has got investors talking

Patricia Scanlon's attracting global interest with her SoapBox Labs, which is helping children's language skills using voice recognition technology for tablets or phones

Former IBM and Bell Labs worker Patricia Scanlon, the founder of Dublin-based startup SoapBox Labs. Photo: Arthur Carron
Former IBM and Bell Labs worker Patricia Scanlon, the founder of Dublin-based startup SoapBox Labs. Photo: Arthur Carron
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Most of us don't think about how kids learn to speak. Their own curiosity, allied to our prodding and hand-holding, sorts the process out. Or does it? Just as in every other walk of life, children have different levels of access to verbal articulation.

One Dublin startup has come up with a sustained approach to the challenge. SoapBox Labs recorded hours of speech patterns from over 11,000 children. Using their own voice recognition technology, they can now identify and correct kids' attempts at words on a phone or tablet.

The product is aimed at children who are between the ages of four and ten, the formative period in learning to talk.

"There are 29 speech recognition apps out there," says Patricia Scanlon, founder and chief executive of SoapBox Labs. "But they're all aimed at adults. There's very little to help assessment and learning for children."

Scanlon used to work at IBM and Bell Labs, where her job involved collecting and analysing data. In 2013, she left the safety net of corporate work to tackle what she saw as a glaring gap in the speech-recognition market.

She created an app that would record and collect - with full parental permission - the nuances of childrens' speech. With the addition of new machine learning technology, she and her team of seven people now uses that data to analyse attempts by children to speak.

Typically, she says, this will happen within a learning game or other educational program introduced to the child by a school or parent.

"Lots of people have tried this before but they were doing it with limited, lab-environment data," says Scanlon.

"Kids now are on cheap tablets or phones. They're in a noisy kitchen or the back of a car. Many systems couldn't deal with the background noise so accuracy was low."

Using SoapBox's real-life kids voice data, the results are claimed to be much better. "We're getting 95pc accuracy on the verification or pronunciation of words," says Scanlon. "We can handle background noise and also adults speaking. Basically, anything that's not a child speaking can be filtered out."

But Scanlon doesn't see SoapBox Labs as entering into competition with the voice recognition services of Google, Apple or Amazon.

"Our process is very much about constraining the issue," says Scanlon. "We're only working towards speech verification.

"We're not looking to see what the child said. Instead, we present the child with a word or sentence or sound and assess how well they said it. We're constraining the problem so that it's achievable." Scanlon says there's "significant" interest in the technology from a number of publishers, each of whom have large developing markets for in-class educational tools.

"In the UK, there are four million children between the ages of four and ten, while in the US there are 25 million," she says. "Some educational publishers would also be looking to expand into the Indian or Chinese markets for learning English too."

Scanlon says that practical uses for the technology extend beyond traditional classroom learning.

"We're also talking to entertainment companies for gaming apps and virtual reality," she says.

"It's basically anywhere where voice is considered to be a more optimal way of doing things. That includes smart homes, wearables and other areas. In many ways, voice is a more natural interface than typing."

What about accents, though? Will SoapBox Labs default towards mid-Atlantic pronunciations that result in a new generation of Hiberno Valley-speakers?

"The way we do it is that several variations in pronunciation are acceptable and none of them are wrong," says Scanlon. "We'll work with the publishers on this, too.

"In any case, many services let you choose between a US or UK version. As children get older, accents come into it more. But our model can cope with some refining and we can also personalise it for a child."

Now based on the South Circular Road in Dublin after a period of incubation in Trinity College Dublin, SoapBox Labs is currently in the final stages of raising seed funding.

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