Voice move is child’s play for firm

SoapBox recognises children’s speech from 180 countries. It has big growth plans, writes Trish Dromey.

SoapBox recognises children’s speech from 180 countries. It has big growth plans, writes Trish Dromey.

Following the release of innovative voice technology software which can accurately recognise children’s voices, Dublin company SoapBox Labs is now engaging with toy and robot makers, game and app developers and educational technology companies across the globe.

“The first product which is being voice enabled by our technology, an educational app made by US company VersaMe, will be on the market this summer and we have plans to integrate into robotics, games and educational apps by Christmas,” said Patricia Scanlon, company founder and chief executive.

Working in the area of voice recognition technology for 20 years, Ms Scanlon realised five years ago that although major advancement had taken place in adult speech recognition, very little attention had been devoted to developing the same technology for children.

Explaining that children’s voices are higher pitched and their speech patterns and behaviour more unpredictable, she says that adult speech recognition technology doesn’t work well for children, especially in the case of very young children.

It occurred to her that there was a gap in the market for technology which could accurately identify children’s voices and could be integrated into toys, games and the type of voice-enabled home devices which are increasingly used.

She also believed it would have major potential for educational use. “Speech technology can be used to teach a child to read — to listen, correct, guide and prompt just like a helpful adult would do as a child reads aloud. We are seeing huge opportunities in language learning too,” she says.

Quitting her job as a researcher with Bell Labs in 2013, she set to work on developing a proof of concept. In 2014, SoapBox Labs “spun in” to Trinity College and secured a grant of €360,000 to commercialise the technology.

By 2017, the company had moved to Newmarket Square in Dublin 8 and secured €1.2m which included some Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start-up Funding as well as private investment.

Ms Scanlon has since applied for patents on the technology which uses a proprietary database created from thousands of hours of speech from children from across 180 countries.

At the end of 2017, SoapBox secured a further €2.1m which included €1.5m in EU funding in the form of a Horizon 20202 SMEI grant.

“This allowed us to increase our staff size from eight to 15, we have recruited engineers and speech recognition specialists from all over the globe,” says Ms Scanlon.

In December, the company launched its cloud-based children’s speech recognition platform which enables device makers and application developers to license the SoapBox Labs speech technology for their own products.

“We are now considered the leaders in this market. No-one else has children’s speech technology that is as accurate,” she says, adding that the company is now engaging with 20 companies across a range of sectors.

Some have already begun integrating Soap Labs technology while others are using to develop new voice-enabled products.

Ms Scanlon says the company has generated media interest internationally, and does not currently require a sales and marketing team, because companies are coming to it looking for the technology.

Products set to incorporate SoapBox technology include entertainment-based products such as games, robots for social and for disability areas, and toys, as well as educational products for reading and language learning.

The company has started to grow to encompass Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese, and has plans to add French, German, and English next year.

Ms Scanlon says the technology will be integrated into 20 companies by the end of the year, and, based on demand, estimates that over 100 companies will use it around the world by end of 2019.

“Our goal is to keep our market lead, scale our technology into multiple languages and continue to release new innovative products in the voice technology space.

“Speech technology is set to become the dominant human interface with technology, replacing typing, touch, and gesture.

“We see vast global opportunities for SoapBox Labs in the coming years,” she says.

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