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AI

WellSaid raises $10M to generate synthetic voices

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WellSaid Labs, a startup developing synthetic voice technology, today announced it has raised $10 million in a series A round led by Fuse, with participation from Voyager, Qualcomm Ventures, and GoodFriends. The round, which was oversubscribed, will support the company’s R&D and grow its team, according to CEO Matt Hocking.

Creating natural-sounding speech from text is considered a grand challenge in the field of AI and has been a research goal for decades. Content creators and product designers have long faced tradeoffs between quality and scalability when using text-to-speech tools versus human voiceovers. But with AI, creators, product developers, and brands have the potential to power experiences with a wide variety of voice styles, accents, and languages at scale. Startups creating virtual beings, or artificial people powered by AI, have collectively raised more than $320 million in venture capital to date.

WellSaid launched in 2018 as a research project at the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence, a lab started by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen with the mission of conducting pivotal AI research and engineering. WellSaid’s team set out to create the most lifelike synthetic voices, with CTO Michael Petrochuck leading R&D to build the key AI.

“What started as a research project … is now a growth-stage startup with thousands of customers in media and advertising, technology, manufacturing, defense, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and education,” Hocking told VentureBeat via email. “In terms of the fundamentals of the business, [due to the pandemic] our mid-market and enterprise customers [have] accelerated and shifted a substantial amount of their voiceover and media productions from in-person to remote locations. This added more moving pieces and quality issues to their productions.”

AI-powered speech

Using WellSaid, companies can pick from a range of voice avatars and create voiceovers straight from a script, with one or many voices based on style, gender, and production type. They’re able to make edits to the copy, change the pausing, or use a different voice and teach the platform to say terms with unique spellings and pronunciations. WellSaid also allows users to share projects and files with team members, as well as building voice avatars for branded content, creating avatars from the voice of a real person with only a few hours of recordings.

Over two years, WellSaid incrementally improved the naturalness of its synthetic voices, aiming for “human parity,” according to Hocking. In a July 2019 study, the company asked participants to listen to a set of randomized recordings created by WellSaid and by human voice actors and rank them on a scale of 1  to 5, with 5 being the highest quality. The voice actors achieved an average rating of around 4.5, while WellSaid’s voices earned scores close to their human counterparts (4.282).

The current focus for Seattle, Washington-based WellSaid, which has 12 employees, is improving the platform’s handling of different text lengths and styles, as well as speeding up voice generation. The company said it takes about 4 seconds to create a 10-second audio file.

WellSaid

“Enterprises use WellSaid Studio to create voiceovers for training and corporate content. They choose WellSaid to optimize their workflows because of the high-quality voices available and to gain cost efficiencies,” Hocking continued. “Product developers integrate [our] API to their experiences to enable voice across their user experience. They rely on the quality of the voices, scalability of the infrastructure, and real-time rendering unmatched by other providers. [As for] brands and creators, [they] use WellSaid to create their own and exclusive AI voice avatars to spec. We partner with them to design, build, host, and deploy their unique AI voices according to their needs and production specs.”

WellSaid’s technology and comparable offerings from Microsoft, Amazon, Resemble AI, Synthesia, Deepdub, Papercup, and others have fueled concerns around misuse and deepfakes, or synthetic media used for nefarious purposes like imitating executives during earnings calls. But Hocking said WellSaid doesn’t create voice avatars without actors’ permission and subscribes to the “Hippocratic Oath for AI” proposed by Microsoft executives Brad Smith and Harry Shum.

“With WellSaid, companies that might have not been ready to deploy synthetic media can now invest in the technology, as it gives them the ability to continue to produce and publish mission-critical content without sacrificing quality,” Hocking said. “We are proud of what we’ve accomplished and grateful for the business we’ve built.”

This latest round brings WellSaid’s total raised to date to $12 million.

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Categories
AI

Replica Studios makes it easy for game and filmmakers to create AI character voices

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AI voice technology startup Replica Studios has launched a desktop app that makes it easier for game and filmmakers to create high-quality voice-over lines and dialogue.

The Brisbane, Australia-based company is one of a number of startups that are using advances in AI to create voice-based products. Replica aims to save studios weeks of expensive voice-acting reshoots and script adjustments.

This may make you wonder if AI will wipe out the jobs of voice actors, but CEO Shreyas Nivas said in an interview with GamesBeat that his company rewards voice actors and that it can help them secure better gigs.

“In a few years, there’s going to be a very high chance that if you hear a voice, it’s going to be computer-generated,” said Nivas. “And it’s going to sound just like a human voice. And the opportunity is there are millions of creators out there creating games, but hiring voice actors doesn’t scale from a cost and a time perspective. This is really that opportunity for them to create with voice technology.”

The Replica app includes 40 AI voice actors, rich performance features to convey realistic moods and emotions, and the first-ever one-click export to Unreal Engine, Unity, and Roblox Studio.

Above: Shreyas Nivas is CEO of Replica.

Image Credit: Replica

He said that Replica’s high-quality AI character voices and makes voice production significantly easier for games and filmmakers. What it does is analyze an actor’s voice and then it can produce variations on that voice, making the actor say words the actor didn’t say, or with a different emotional emphasis on words. The actor still gets paid for work, but doesn’t have to come back over and over for reshoots.

“We’ve been working with a growing pool of talented voice actors,” Nivas said. “Human voice actors will be at the very beginning of this process. And that’s kind of how we’ve been working with them as well. They provide the basics, and then you can provide all the variations for the developers with Replica.”

Replica’s advanced AI voice software enables more expressive characters at scale by producing synthesized speech from scripts, with easy-to-use style filters that control the mood or emotion of the voice, and more advanced controls to fine tune performance characteristics like pacing and intonation. Additionally, Replica is growing its character library of unique AI voices by working with an ever-expanding pool of voice actors that are able to earn an ongoing rev-share for games and films using their character’s intellectual property.

Today’s app launch news comes on the heels of a beta launch for Replica’s Unreal Engine plugin in November 2020, where game developers and animators were able to explore an easy-to-use voice AI tool for prototyping and content releases. In the three months since launch, Replica reported 16,000 audio sessions and received incredibly positive reviews from the Unreal Engine dev community.

“We’re interfacing really closely with Unreal Engine and Unity. We’ve built this app where you’ve got currently 40 AI character voices that are really suited to games and film. They’re all computer-generated voices. You can prototype some speech and then send that file straight into Unreal or Unity.”

Additionally, Replica’s voices were used in the development of an award-winning animated short-film, Cassini Logs, developed entirely using Unreal Engine.

Replica is working closely with game studios to help them leverage voice AI, and has seen more than 120,000 audio sessions in the past three months of its web app, which has now merged with its desktop app into one holistic solution for creators.

Josh Holmes, a cofounder of Improbable’s Midwinter Entertainment, said in a statement that Replica made it easier to rapidly produce voice lines and playtest Scavengers development builds. Midwinter had to iterate on new versions of the gameplay multiple times before it had to record final lines with actors. He said the quality was impressive — so much so that some think the automatically generated Replica lines are actual voice recordings from actors.

Nivas believes this is a powerful tool for creators, game developers, and filmmakers, and today’s launch is paving the way for integration with other next-gen creator platforms such as Unreal Engine, Unity, and Roblox.

Matt and Ben Horton, creators of feature-length films in Roblox, have used Replica AI character voices to produce animated and game-based narratives.

Nivas started the company in Brisbane in 2019 and went through the LA Techstars Music Accelerator. In 2020, the company raised $2.5 million in seed funding. Rivals include Sonantic and others. Replica has 10 employees.

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