Assistant professor of Computer Studies at Rochester University and computer programme developer, Ehsan Hoque hopes that his latest development, ROC Speak will help those with fears of public speaking excel at just that. It’s a commonly cited fear that most people can successfully overcome with a bit of coaching.
An alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Hoque was inspired by his teenage brother who lives with Down’s Syndrome, as well as a workshop held by the Asperger’s Association of New England. Desperate for a modern answer to their social struggles, people approached him and other researchers in attendance. Their pleas included: “Once I start talking I don’t know when to stop, and people lose interest, and I don’t know why."
These encounters led to Hoque's research into and eventual development of a system that could aid in remedying this hardship. Coupling advanced computer algorithms with human intelligence in order to automatically sense and interpret nonverbal behaviour, ROC Speak uses the video camera and audio recording on users' laptops to measure things like eye gaze, word use, voice level and hand gestures. The system also provides feedback, allowing users to explore and understand the variations of their conduct while practising their speech.
“The human face has 43 muscles,” Hoque explains. “Using 43 muscles, we can create 10 000 unique facial expressions. To model nonverbal behaviour, we need to get a lot of data and collect it in a naturalistic environment.”
Though cutting-edge, making use of ROC Speak is incredibly simple. Upon visiting the site, users are given the option to choose between recording a video of themselves giving a prepared speech in private or practice mode. By choosing the latter option the user consents to sharing their recording for research purposes. Once complete, users receive immediate feedback on the interpersonal performance.
Because the technology is cloud based, Hoque is able to tweak algorithms as people use the programme. Since its launch, he's seen vast improvement in users' verbal skills. Because of this he envisions enormous potential for ROC Speak’s growth, and hopes to find a way to increase its global uptake. “Social skills are fundamental to who you are,” he explained to Microsoft. “So I think if there is a platform out there that helps you to be better with communication, it can change the way we communicate.”