Hexia Releases Iceland's First Mobile Text-to-Speech Application

Though its population tops slightly more than 300,000, Iceland’s tech-saavy citizens have made for a country willing to adopt cutting-edge technologies at rates similar to the rest of Europe. And this month, Icelandic speech company Hexia launched the country’s first text-to-speech (TTS) application for mobile phones. Called Ragga, the self-service application delivers synthesized speech to a user’s mobile device.

Ragga is one of Hexia’s most recent products, joining a coterie of the company’s TTS services, such as a Web service interface that translates text from Web sites into synthesized speech. The company, which was founded in 2002, developed a VoiceXML 2.0-compliant application server, and then began building speech applications. The company’s target market is the Icelandic population, and has had to overcome minor hurdles to push its technology into the mainstream.

Toti Steffansson, Hexia’s CEO, says the quality of both ASR and TTS in Iceland was either not available or of poor quality, forcing the company to partner with other organizations. "Since we wanted and needed to be able to deploy our applications here, we were forced to create a consortium of enterprises, universities, and government agencies to rectify that situation," he says.

This consortium then partnered with Nuance Communications to create an ASR for the Icelandic language, which led to Ragga’s release, he says. Ragga’s primary user base consists of both dyslexics and busy professionals. While Steffansson says Hexia expected dyslexics to comprise its main user market, the company was surprised to see other demographics use Ragga. One such group, he says, is lawyers.

"(They) would like to download legal texts to their iPods and go jogging," he says. "That was not the target audience we had in mind."

The Icelandic language, which has changed little since Norse settlers arrived there in the 9th century, adapted well to TTS applications. Though complex, Steffansson states that Icelandic is easier to generate than English due to the language’s variety of sounds. Hexia, he adds, is now working on a system that can handle gender and language idiosyncrasies. In addition, Hexia is also running tests with the country’s Ministry of Education for an application it designed that allows dyslexic schoolchildren to enter text and have it read back them.

Currently, the Ragga service is provided on a "freemium" model, which is free for the disabled, but comes with a price for "enterprises and others we feel comfortable charging," Steffansson says.  Currently, Icelanders have responded well to the application, and he expects this growth to continue.

"The market (in Iceland) is small and technologically adept, making it easy to introduce and market services and see how they fare," he says.

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