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Title: Synthetic voice design and implementation
Author: Cowley, Christopher K.
Awarding Body: Bournemouth University
Current Institution: Bournemouth University
Date of Award: 1999
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The limitations of speech output technology emphasise the need for exploratory psychological research to maximise the effectiveness of speech as a display medium in human-computer interaction. Stage 1 of this study reviewed speech implementation research, focusing on general issues for tasks, users and environments. An analysis of design issues was conducted, related to the differing methodologies for synthesised and digitised message production. A selection of ergonomic guidelines were developed to enhance effective speech interface design. Stage 2 addressed the negative reactions of users to synthetic speech in spite of elegant dialogue structure and appropriate functional assignment. Synthetic speech interfaces have been consistently rejected by their users in a wide variety of application domains because of their poor quality. Indeed the literature repeatedly emphasises quality as being the most important contributor to implementation acceptance. In order to investigate this, a converging operations approach was adopted. This consisted of a series of five experiments (and associated pilot studies) which homed in on the specific characteristics of synthetic speech that determine the listeners varying perceptions of its qualities, and how these might be manipulated to improve its aesthetics. A flexible and reliable ratings interface was designed to display DECtalk speech variations and record listeners perceptions. In experiment one, 40 participants used this to evaluate synthetic speech variations on a wide range of perceptual scales. Factor analysis revealed two main factors: "listenability" accounting for 44.7% of the variance and correlating with the DECtalk "smoothness" parameter to . 57 (p<0.005) and "richness" to . 53 (p<0.005); "assurance" accounting for 12.6% of the variance and correlating with "average pitch" to . 42 (p<0.005) and "head size" to. 42 (p<0.005). Complimentary experiments were then required in order to address appropriate voice design for enhanced listenability and assurance perceptions. With a standard male voice set, 20 participants rated enhanced smoothness and attenuated richness as contributing significantly to speech listenability (p<0.001). Experiment three using a female voice set yielded comparable results, suggesting that further refinements of the technique were necessary in order to develop an effective methodology for speech quality optimization. At this stage it became essential to focus directly on the parameter modifications that are associated with the the aesthetically pleasing characteristics of synthetic speech. If a reliable technique could be developed to enhance perceived speech quality, then synthesis systems based on the commonly used DECtalk model might assume some of their considerable yet unfulfilled potential. In experiment four, 20 subjects rated a wide range of voices modified across the two main parameters associated with perceived listenability, smoothness and richness. The results clearly revealed a linear relationship between enhanced smoothness and attenuated richness and significant improvements in perceived listenability (p<0.001 in both cases). Planned comparisons conducted were between the different levels of the parameters and revealed significant listenability enhancements as smoothness was increased, and a similar pattern as richness decreased. Statistical analysis also revealed a significant interaction between the two parameters (p<0.001) and a more comprehensive picture was constructed. In order to expand the focus of and enhance the generality of the research, it was now necessary to assess the effects of synthetic speech modifications whilst subjects were undertaking a more realistic task. Passively rating the voices independent of processing for meaning is arguably an artificial task which rarely, if ever, would occur in 'real-world' settings. In order to investigate perceived quality in a more realistic task scenario, experiment five introduced two levels of information processing load. The purpose of this experiment was firstly to see if a comprehension load modified the pattern of listenability enhancements, and secondly to see if that pattern differed between high and and low load. Techniques for introducing cognitive load were investigated and comprehension load was selected as the most appropriate method in this case. A pilot study distinguished two levels of comprehension load from a set of 150 true/false sentences and these were recorded across the full range of parameter modifications. Twenty subjects then rated the voices using the established listenability scales as before but also performing the additional task of processing each spoken stimuli for meaning and determining the authenticity of the statements. Results indicated that listenability enhancements did indeed occur at both levels of processing although at the higher level variations in the pattern occured. A significant difference was revealed between optimal parameter modifications for conditions of high and low cognitive load (p<0.05). The results showed that subjects perceived the synthetic voices in the high cognitive load condition to be significantly less listenable than those same voices in the low cognitive load condition. The analysis also revealed that this effect was independent of the number of errors made. This result may be of general value because conclusions drawn from this findings are independent of any particular parameter modifications that may be exclusively available to DECtalk users. Overall, the study presents a detailed analysis of the research domain combined with a systematic experimental program of synthetic speech quality assessment. The experiments reported establish a reliable and replicable procedure for optimising the aesthetically pleasing characteristics of DECtalk speech, but the implications of the research extend beyond the boundaries of a particular synthesiser. Results from the experimental program lead to a number of conclusions, the most salient being that not only does the synthetic speech designer have to overcome the general rejection of synthetic voices based on their poor quality by sophisticated customisation of synthetic voice parameters, but that he or she needs to take into account the cognitive load of the task being undertaken. The interaction between cognitive load and optimal settings for synthesis requires direct consideration if synthetic speech systems are going to realise and maximise their potential in human computer interaction.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Computer Science and Informatics