By Andrea Pyka

Roughly 40,000 people suffer from strokes each year in Malaysia, and two UC Santa Cruz professors are helping to pave the road to recovery.

Sri Kurniawan, assistant professor of computer engineering at UC Santa Cruz, is teaming up with UCSC psychology professor Dominic Massaro to create a virtual speech therapist that will be accessible to patients and their therapists via cell phone.

According to Kurniawan, a shortage of speech therapists in Malaysia makes therapy centers difficult to get to for many stroke survivors, 80 percent of whom are over 65 years old.

“Speech therapy is very intensive and [can take] almost 16 hours a week,” she said. “Unless [patients have] a dedicated driver, it is quite difficult for them to follow a regime.”

Kurniawan said that it would be simpler to make a speech therapist available via computer, but she focused on using cell phone technology because there is better coverage for cell phones in Malaysia than for Internet connections.

The project, funded by Microsoft Research, will entail a detailed study of 10 stroke survivors in Malaysia who currently suffer from a range of communication and speech impairments, a condition known as aphasia.

As part of the project, Kurniawan plans to extend a speech project already developed by UCSC Professor Dominic Massaro. The project, called “Baldi,” is an animated tutor that mimics the movements of the tongue, jaw and lips during speech.

Baldi, which is generated by a text-to-speech synthesizer, is programmed to speak 11 languages, including English, Spanish and Mandarin. To accommodate Kurniawan’s project, Massaro and his group of researchers are currently working on programming Baldi to speak Malay, which is also spoken in Indonesia.

“If we manage to [create a] Malay-speaking speech therapist, it will take very minimal effort to convert it to Indonesia,” Kurniawan said. “The possibilities are endless. We could not only translate it into various languages, but also geographic locations and other portable devices like an iPod.”

Massaro, who initially created Baldi to help autistic and hearing-impaired children build language skills, hopes that using Baldi to help establish a virtual speech therapist will lead to further developments in speech technology.

“We are approaching [the Malay project] from the perspective of science and evaluating whether it is effective, and if it is effective, our long-term goal is to make it available to everyone who needs it,” Massaro said.

Marshall Benson, a fourth-year UCSC student studying neuroscience, is currently working with two fellow student research assistants on Massaro’s research to make Baldi’s speech as realistic and helpful as possible.

As part of his research, Benson compared lip-readability between Baldi and “Timo,” another animated tutor developed at UCSC.

Benson said, “Animated speech-generating agents could potentially have big implications for how we interact with computers in the future. Baldi quite literally speaks our language and would open the door to the possibility of a technological interface that is more natural and accessible to us.”