The Pasadena-based startup ObEN is hoping to out-Babel the Babel fish… except for speaking in any language rather than understanding any tongue.
In the late Douglas Adams’ classic “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the fictional Babel fish enabled users anywhere to understand any spoken language. The “small, yellow, leech-like” fish was said to live on brain wave energy, excreting a telepathic matrix back into the user’s brain:
“[T]he practical upshot of which,” Adams wrote, “is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”
As an app, rather than a fish, ObEn works when you use it to build a personalized voice print. Once the software has analyzed the key attributes of your voice, it can apply those to enable any Internet-of-Things-connected device with speech-sythesizing capabilities to “talk” in your voice.
“I just received an audio clip, pressed play, and recognized my voice — but I was speaking Chinese,” PC Magazine’s Sophia Stuart recently wrote in a profile about the company’s technology. “In reality, I don’t know more than a cheerful ‘nihao’ and a suitably grateful ‘xie xie.’ But it was definitely my voice, and the company responsible is ObEN.”
If that sounds cool, albeit a little weird too, ObEN has lots of potential applications in mind for its technology. At the LINQ Hotel in Las Vegas, for example, the Chinese instant messaging service WeChat used ObEN earlier this year to enable a robot concierge called Ben to communicate with guests in Mandarin, while Ben was also able to converse with English speakers in their language at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
Chatbots would seem like a natural opportunity for ObEn, and the company says it’s already had “quite of lot of success with our chatbots.”
Ultimately, ObEN’s team says, the company’s goal is to “amass the world’s largest human voiceprint bank and become the voice engine providing the last mile solution for Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, games, entertainment, education, healthcare, and other sectors.”
“With ObEN’s technology, infinite material is possible in mere minutes and for the first time, personalized voice is available to everyone,” the company noted earlier this year in a blog post announcing a major investment from HTC’s Vive X Accelerator Program. “Imagine a GPS speaking in the voice of your child or audiobooks read in your mother’s voice. This also creates opportunities for fans to engage with their favorite celebrities in unprecedented ways. Fans can now set off on a virtual adventure with their favorite personality narrating every step of the way. Parents can delight their children with a personalized happy birthday message from their beloved Disney character. And the opportunity to perfectly sing a duet with your favorite pop star is easily achievable in VR with ObEN.”