SpinVox Sends the Homily Home

Last month, SpinVox facilitated the “world’s first ever voice-to-text Sunday service,” and is now preparing for a second this Sunday at St. Christopher’s Anglican Parish Church of Hinchley Wood, in Surrey, England. The deployment is part of an ongoing effort to push SpinVox’s services into the as-yet-untouched religious sphere.
At the church, a three-minute segment of the Rev. John Kronenburg's sermon is transmitted by microphone from the pulpit to a cellular phone connected to the SpinVox service, which in turn, converts the snippet into text and emails it to the church’s mailing list. The email from the first service went to about 100 people, according to Rev. Kronenburg, vicar of St. Christopher’s, and was met with universal approval.

“We’ve had really good response from older people—who I think of as my Silver Surfers—and also younger people…We’ve had a really good response irrespective of age. One middle-aged person told me that it was just so nice to get something on her email that wasn’t just rubbish,” he says.

For the church, which has been facing financial hardship with an increasingly older congregation, SpinVox seems to present an opportunity to reach younger Christians of Hinchley Wood and build a sense of community around church life. To that end, the church already has a Web site, Facebook page, RSS feed, and regularly emails its congregation with updates, but the SpinVox partnership represents a way of transmitting what it sees as more spontaneous messages, something with immediacy beyond prepared pieces.

“What this technology will help us do is keep the virtual community grounded in the physical community. What we’re not saying to people is, ‘You got the email, you don’t need to go to church anymore.’ What we’re saying is, ‘Keep in touch with us,’” Rev. Kronenburg says.

SpinVox, for its part, is hoping to expand its business into new terrain and has plans to replicate its “voice-to-text sermons” in other religious services worldwide. The company feels there is potential for real growth in the religious sector.

“What we’ve discovered in our discussions with the Rev. Kronenburg is that often there are a lot of people who want to attend a service at a certain time, but may not be able to because they have really busy lives,” says Jonathan Simnett, global director of communications at SpinVox. “They still want that simultaneous experience of the sermon, and you can only do that when using voice-to-text conversion.”

SpinVox’s voice-to-text is powered by the company’s proprietary Voice Message Conversion System or D2, which is built around Cambridge University’s HTK engine. The service works with 13 carriers on five continents in six different languages. The speech is converted primarily through an automated process and, for words it does not recognize, is supported by human language experts who build the system’s vocabulary, help it to understand alternate pronunciations and accents, and ensure a high degree of accuracy.

That said, SpinVox’s technology, designed with phone messages in mind, presents some limitations when applied to the needs of would-be sermon-makers. For the time being, messages cannot be longer than three minutes, which Rev. Kronenburg points out, “is a problem if you mistime the delivery so that the last clinching sentence gets cut off.”

He adds, “It also means that people who are at the service might feel they haven’t gotten full value for their money. It could make things more complicated if you have to put together a sermon which includes a three-minute sound bite sermon within it and also has to have more there for the people who are actually [in church].”

Though Rev. Kronenburg would like to see SpinVox eventually provide a 12-minute message level of service for church users, he still sees the benefits of the service as it is outweighing any negatives. He has every intention of continuing to incorporate the voice-to-text solution as is into his more informal, youth-oriented services in the future.

“I wouldn’t want to use it every week, but I think I would be very happy to use it every time we have what we call an ‘all-ages congregation,’” he says.

The second voice-to-text service is scheduled for this Sunday, Dec. 21, at St. Christopher’s.

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