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BBC R&D tests synthetic voices

Designed to inform future voice products and projects

BBC R&D has launched an online study into synthetic voices, to test the effect of British regional accents on a public audience.

A collaboration between BBC R&D, the University of Salford, BBC Science, BBC Radio 4 and the BBC’s Voice + AI team, the Synthetic Voice and Personality study explores the ways synthetic voices could be used in different media contexts in the future.

“Back in January 1927, Professor T.H. Pear of the University of Manchester ran an original experiment with the BBC on the perception of voices on radio to understand how people responded to disembodied voices,” said Barbara Zambrini, senior producer, BBC R&D. “Voices were presented on all BBC radio stations, and 5,000 people provided feedback using a questionnaire in the Radio Times.”

This follow up experiment is to be covered in a BBC Radio 4 programme later this year, after eight weeks of testing a range of audio samples from male and female synthetic voices including:

  • Regional accents
  • Tone of voice
  • Context of use (the type of content attached to specific voices)
  • Perception of synthetic voices (what people think and how it makes them feel)

BBC R&D collaborated with BBC staff from regional radio stations, local news teams and the technology division to find volunteers with distinctive regional accents, generating 24 synthetic voices from 12 different regions.

A series of questions were then formulated to determine the voice audiences would prefer in different contexts. For example, would they prefer a voice similar to their own to read the local news?

“This study is not the end of our work in this field – it builds onto our existing knowledge and expertise, and the technical and UX work is a good foundation for the future,” added Zambrini. “Our work will contribute to the wider literature in this field as there is only a small amount of published work on HCI and regional accents in different countries.

“The BBC Voice + AI team will be looking at the results of the study to see how they might inform our voice products and projects in the future.”