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In the iconic movie E.T (1982), a memorable scene shows the alien rigging up a child’s toy (Speak & Spell) with an umbrella, a record player and other paraphernalia to make a makeshift intergalactic communicator, while uttering the unforgettable line “E.T. phone home.”
This moment demonstrates Spielberg’s genius, yet for the nerds among us, it also highlights a significant contribution to the evolution of modern speech synthesis technology. On June 11th, 1978 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a pretty neat piece of technology made its grand debut — the “Speak & Spell”, an educational toy capable of articulating words. It sparked a revolution in speech synthesis, reshaping the interface between technology and language learning.
Conceived by Texas Instruments (TI), Speak & Spell wasn’t merely a product; it was a personal endeavour for its team leader, Paul Breedlove. Driven by his daughter’s journey into the world of spelling, Breedlove envisioned an educational toy that could ease and enhance this learning process. Designed with a speech synthesis chip, a keyboard, and a display, Speak & Spell was more than just an educational toy. It pioneered a new world of interactive spelling and pronunciation learning for children.
Despite its innovative design, Speak & Spell initially faced significant scepticism and divisiveness within the industry. Critics were uncertain about the potential success of such a toy. However, Breedlove and his team’s unwavering dedication and enjoyment in developing Speak & Spell persevered.
The magic ingredient of Speak & Spell was its use of Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) technology, a landmark breakthrough in speech synthesis. This technology analysed and predicted vocal tract behaviour, generating synthetic speech and allowing the Speak & Spell to accurately reproduce spoken words. The emergence of Speak & Spell made the process of language learning a more interactive, fun, and accessible experience.
Today, the echoes of Speak & Spell and its influence permeates modern devices and applications using speech synthesis. From voice assistants and language learning apps to accessibility tools for individuals with speech impairments, Speak & Spell’s legacy continues to thrive. Something to ponder next time you see modern deep-fakes or hear some AI voice-cloning!