New Technology Aims to Give Unique Voices to People Who Can’t Speak

SYRACUSE, New York  --  For children who lose their voice due to a serious illness, it may feel like they have lost a part of their identity.

NBC News' Dr. John Torres reports on the ways medical experts are working to give voices to the voiceless with the help of new technology.

Leo True-Frost, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, speaks through a computer because he is unable to articulate words. A problem with this, though, is that his voice does not sound like a child; instead, his computer sounds like a 40-year-old man.

"We've really had to try to make him comfortable using that in public and not being ashamed about it," said Leo's mother Cora True-Frost.

Thousands of people like Leo talk through a computer, but their voice all sounds the same--like a robot.

"When you lose your voice and you forever have to communicate through, let's say a GPS-sounding voice, you're losing a piece of your identity," said Rupal Patel, a speech therapist with VocaliD.

Patel hopes to give Leo his own voice, created using any sounds he is still able to make combined with a matching donor voice from another person.

A group of 7th graders in California are some of the voice donors, and have recorded 3,000 sentences.

"Every 100 words takes about 20 minutes," said donor Luke Renert.

Mallika John, another donor, said, "Everyone should be able to have their own voice and I want do my part to help other people."

These voice recordings end up in the human voice bank, a collection of 19,000 voices from around the world.

Each contribution is a vocal fingerprint of the donor's individual sounds, and one of them will be matched with Leo to give him his own unique voice--one that nobody else will ever use.

"The idea that he can use his device, which we're used to having a sort of more anonymous sound to it, come out with something that we know in some way came from inside his vocal chords and diaphragm, it's just mind blowing," said Leo's father Jim True-Frost.

When Leo first tested out his new voice, his message to Rupal Patel was "thank you."