electronic vocal assistant?
April 21, 2005 9:20 PM   Subscribe

I occasionally interact with someone who uses a device for speaking. She holds something about the size and shape of an electric razor up to her throat, and it synthesizes (or probably just amplifies) her speech -- but the output is an electronic, monotone sound, similar to the voice of the Cylons in the original "Battlestar Galactica." Three questions: What's the unit called? Is some surgical implant required, which works in conjunction with the unit's pickup? And what happened, that she needs this to speak?

Sure, I could just ask her, but you know the embarrassment the able-bodied feel with the handicapped, actually discussing their afflictions -- seems impolite or insensitive, somehow, blurting out "What happened to you?" (even though many people seem to love complaining about their own personal miseries).
posted by Rash to Technology (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Most likely she's had a laryngectomy. Scroll down:

"The third method of artificial sound communication involves using a hand-held electronic device that translates vibrations into sounds. There are several different styles of these devices, but all require the use of at least one hand to hold the device to the throat."
posted by some chick at 9:27 PM on April 21, 2005

When I've seen this before, I think it's been on a smoker.
posted by Aknaton at 9:35 PM on April 21, 2005

I've only seen this in movies/tv shows, but it is stereotypically one of the terrible possibilities that smoking can lead to - a result of throat cancer.
posted by mdn at 9:40 PM on April 21, 2005

yes, south park! I knew there was a cartoon with this, but I couldn't place it.
posted by mdn at 9:42 PM on April 21, 2005

My grandmother had one. She had the cancer & surgery when I was so young that I don't remember what her voice sounded like, only the buzzing.

I don't smoke. Neither should you! Otherwise your grandchildren won't know your voice!
posted by librarina at 9:53 PM on April 21, 2005

It's called a electropharynx.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 10:10 PM on April 21, 2005

The South Park character is indeed Ned. (Jimbo is his pal.) The official site says: "Ned is Jimbo's old war buddy who co-hosts "Huntin' & Killin'." He blew his arm off with a grenade in Vietnam while helping to destroy the entire Viet Cong army. He also received throat cancer from smoking too many cigarettes and now must speak with the help of an electro larynx."

He also occasionally burp-talks in order to get words out, much to the chagrin of his pals.
posted by GaelFC at 10:21 PM on April 21, 2005

Not just for ex-smokers, anyoine with certain kinds of throat cancer (probably more common with smokers). And it sounds very much like a computer/Stephen Hawking type voice. I don't think you need any kind of implant for it.
People who need one can whisper without it but they don't have a voice box so can't make any louder, real "vocal" sounds.
posted by cushie at 2:16 AM on April 22, 2005

There is a character in Dead Again played by Andy Garcia that has one. When I was a kid, a guy with one came to warn us about the dangers of smoking. Smoking isn't the only cause, but it often leads to cancer of the larynx, which is why you'd need one.
posted by abbyladybug at 4:02 AM on April 22, 2005

On South Park they once refered to it as a Cancer Kazoo.
posted by bondcliff at 5:22 AM on April 22, 2005

The bad guy in Ong Bak uses one. Which leads one to wonder if some languages are more amenable to this than others.
posted by Capn at 7:05 AM on April 22, 2005

They used to have one of these on display in the lobby of Murray Hill Bell Labs. It takes some practice to use right.
posted by plinth at 9:17 AM on April 22, 2005

I vaguely remember having a toy in the late 80s that used the same principle. You would have a tube that you put in your mouth, and as you voicelessly wisper words, the toy would produce a robot voice.

I believe it was branded as a transformers toy. I can't find it on google though...
posted by clord at 11:49 AM on April 22, 2005

IIRC, the thing doesn't amplify the person's speech --- it's just a buzzer. After the laryngectomy they can't make the buzzing sound that's the raw component of voiced speech, and this device supplies it. [Note: I am not a speech expert or anything.]

Roughly, speech works by taking a raw sound made in your throat, either a hiss or a buzz depending on whether you're making an unvoiced or voiced phoneme, and then modifying that sound by passing it through the various resonant cavities in your head (sinuses and mouth). You use your tongue and lips to change the shapes of those cavities in order to change the final sound. And you use the muscles in your throat to change the qualities of the initial hiss/buzz.

If your larynx is out of order, you can't make the buzz, but the rest of your sound-forming anatomy is still there. Placing a buzzer against your throat gets you a buzzing noise which you can then shape into speech. But since you can't control the tone of the buzz, or switch between it and a hiss (at least, not as deftly as if it were your own throat) the speech comes out sounding pretty flat.

Old computer speech synthesis technology (eg formant synthesizers and vocoders) is based on this understanding of the vocal tract. They generate either white noise or a stream of impulses and pass it through a filter. I think newer systems use other, more computationally-demanding techniques, like having lots of little samples of phonemes which are distorted as necessary and patched together.
posted by hattifattener at 2:46 PM on April 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

clord -- isn't that the same thing Peter Frampton used, which then disappeared for 25 years, only to return with a vengeance recently?
posted by Rash at 2:59 PM on April 22, 2005

It was a transformers toy. It was marketed as a toy, but worked very well as an electropharynx. My grandfather used one, briefly, while they fought with the insurance company over who would buy the medically approved electropharynx.

It was some freaky stuff for me as a child to see him speaking through a transformers toy.

Apparently they were also very popular with uninsured people, as they cost under $20 instead of the way more expensive medically approved electropharynx devices.
posted by Sheppagus at 3:20 PM on April 22, 2005

Peter Frampton used something called a "talk box", which is nothing more than a horn speaker with horn removed and a hose attached that runs to the musician. Amplified sounds comes out of the hose into the player's mouth who changes the timbre by reshaping his/her mouth.
posted by plinth at 6:33 PM on April 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

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