SpeechMatch is a pragmatic mobile language training platform that teaches individuals to “match” critical components of conversation. First studied with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) SpeechMatch provides subjects with immediate visual feedback to shape identification and expression of emotion in speech. SpeechMatch is easily downloaded on to your tablet or phone so that a person can practice at home, in school or on the run.
SpeechMatch is research based and data driven. Data collection and analysis allow families and professionals to gauge progress in speech matching skills.
I have long been interested in the way in which people with Autism and other communication disorders spoke with me in everyday conversations. So many folks have a quirky style in which they seemed to speak at me rather than with me. For years I became focused on this issue even reaching back decades to study the psycholinguistic literature to look for help. The term “vocal congruence” or what I call “speech matching” clearly spoke to this problem. When broken down in to its elemental parts, how people match speech…in terms of volume, pauses, how long they talk, tone of voice… all matters…and it matters a lot. It ends up that people make decisions about whether they like people in a very short time, usually less than a minute. And, how well people match patterns of speech is critical to how people make that decision. So I set out on a long odyssey to test various ways to teach people how to become better speech matchers. In the beginning I played around with programs designed for audio editing that help create visual feedback about sound matching.
Desperate to do this in a more efficient way with a better approach to software, I doggedly bugged all of my friends and professional colleagues for leads on finding help. My search literally went around the world - from my little town in New Hampshire to a friend in the Middle East working on film and software projects, to electronic music gurus in Australia, and eventually back to the U.S. to a boyhood friend from down the street where I grew up. When I discovered that Bob Taub, who I knew had become a world renown concert pianist, had formed a company to develop cutting edge music software (see NY Times link below), [Office1] I can’t tell you how excited I became. I headed down to New York City where I met with Bob (for the first time in years) at his Soho office where immediately in became clear that we were on the same page. Much of what Bob was doing with music, was what I was trying to do with speech and Autism. It was all about software that could help drive the match!
Ever since then Bob and I have been working together to create a first-rate tool that could truly help children and adults in need of help improving their conversational skills. We’ve written grants together, met with Autism researchers, enticed speech therapists in to using SpeechMatch with children and adults in their practices. And I keep chipping away studying SpeechMatch with different age groups (from early childhood to young adult) and with different groups (from ASD to typical adolescents and college students). All during that time Bob has kept us on track with incredibly helpful meetings with software application engineers, design specialists, and directors of Autism centers, to name a few.
What a long interesting trip it’s been. From initial crazy ideas, to iPad platform development, to watching real life individuals work with SpeechMatch. And working with Bob whose initial words I’ll never forget: “Let’s do some good for the world.”
Human communication has always been my obsessive focus. Throughout my year career as a concert pianist, I experienced repeatedly the communicative power of music, which transcends all boarders and boundaries.
Several years ago, when my daughter was striving to learn violin, she asked me one evening when I was practicing with her: “Daddy, what does this sound like?” There was frustration in her tone, for she had not yet developed the musical skill to look at a page of notes and hear them internally. At that moment, I imagined a means by which she could answer her own question: a portable “musician’s brain” that would enable her to take a photo and hear what she sees, a routine process for many well-trained musicians. I became fascinated by this idea – a tool that could help enable musical literacy and foster musical creativity and communication – and formed a small company to make it a reality.
A subsequent step was to develop software that could offer performance evaluation – once the user hears the music, is she singing or playing in tune, with good rhythm? We worked on that trajectory as well, and initially licensed our software to Activision for use in Guitar Hero. We won that licensing competition because our software was pin-point accurate, very easy to use, and lightweight.
Several years ago, Dr. Larry Welkowitz (whom I’ve known since high school) asked me to explore adapting our music evaluation software to speech. Could music software evaluate three critical parameters of speech, parameters that people on the autism spectrum find challenging to match in conversation, namely volume, pacing (rhythm), and emotional content (pitch/frequency)? If so, could we provide immediate visual feedback? Could we then offer user scores for each thread, as well as an overall score, for matching speech patterns relative to a given reference phrase? And if all of this were possible from an engineering perspective, would the resulting platform be an effective tool for improving speech matching patterns for people on the autism spectrum, thereby increasing communication and lessening spirals of social isolation?
We built a mobile platform that we call SpeechMatch, and Larry started sharing it with people on the autism spectrum. The results are very encouraging, with statistically significant improvement by users. Therefore, we decided to make SpeechMatch more widely available.
Our approach to improve linguistic communication with people on the autism spectrum is new. We all know that human communication is critically important for all, and our approach is to offer a fun, mobile-based tool that is easy to use anywhere, that can be personalized by parents or therapists, and that offers data that enables users to mark their progress.
I am thrilled to be working with Larry to create a platform that can help people to help themselves by enabling them to express themselves more fully, to engage in more meaningful communication across the continuum of interpersonal relationships.