Giving Voice to People – Even the Voice of Homer Simpson

Lizbeth Goodman

Even Homer Simpson can help to make technology more accessible. At least, that is the view of one of the keynote speakers at this year’s OEB. ”I have always worked towards empowering people to speak for themselves“ says Dr Lizbeth Goodman, Chair of Creative Technology Innovation at the University of East London and Director of Research for Futurelab Education. And even Homer Simpson, the crude and boorish character from TV’s ‘The Simpsons’, can be put to good use by lending his voice to someone who otherwise could not speak.


by Andrea Marshall

In her work, Lizbeth Goodman strives to achieve what she calls ”digital inclusion“ and learning for all – topics that will be discussed at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN – through “community-based ethical learning with interactive tools and games.”





The InterFACES Project

One example she will focus on in her presentation is a project called InterFACES which has been designed to bring a more human face to technology. Goodman, along with her colleague Dr Mick Donegan and their team, work with people who literally cannot speak because of physical conditions such as cerebral palsy or the effects of trauma. Like the renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking, many people with severe physical disabilities are able to activate speech computers ”but the delivery often sounds mechanical and the options for customising and personalising the voices have, to date, been quite limited”, Goodman says.


So, as one part of their work, the team looked for ways of making monotonous synthesised voices sound more emotionally charged. With the help of musicians and sound artists, programmers and research students, they were able to design an ’emotional register’. ”It adds another layer of meaning“, Goodman says. ”If the speech runs slowly and you hear a flute in the background it means something different than fast speech with accompanying drum beats.“


With the new software, the user is able to express feelings and moods like happiness, calmness, anger or frustration. Or sarcasm: this is the tone that ’alpha user‘ James Brosnan asked to add to his own speech computer. Brosnan is a research fellow and author who talks through a laptop while living with cerebral palsy, and he helped to develop the ideas behind the new technology. At Brosnan’s request, the team set up links to the voice of Homer Simpson, the TV character known for his sarcastic remarks, along with adding a wide range of rude words and colourful language options, to allow a vibrant man in his early thirties to speak freely with his ‘mates’ in Dublin. (Other more polite and feminine voice and music options are added for other users of the system, at their request).


SMARTlab Digital Media Insitute

The InterFACES project is run by Goodman’s SMARTlab Digital Media Institute. As it has evolved and grown over the past 16 years, it has transformed methods of communication and creative expression worldwide ( Together with SMARTlab’s MAGIC Multimedia and Games Innovation Centre, the team operates as an “agency for social change“ and currently has its main UK base in East London, with active projects running from sister sites in Dublin, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Mumbai, Marrakesh and Singapore, to name but a few.


The InterFACES project was born in 2003 when the SMARTlab team was commissioned to create and perform a multimedia dance technology piece with and for 16 young people with disabilities, as part of the pre-show for the Dublin Special Olympics. Later, Dr Mick Donegan, now the Deputy Director at SMARTlab, brought to the team his “eye gaze system” upon which the main work of the project has been developed since. Donegan refined the eye tracking technology used in marketing research so that paralysed users are now able to control a computer interface through the sole use of their eyes. “It was then that the whole SMARTlab team began to rethink our other project ideas and to bring creative collaborators in, in order to accelerate the improvement of the speech, writing and music software to enable expression for all” says Lizbeth Goodman.


Lizbeth Goodman
Lizbeth Goodman is a very versatile and unconventional person: Born and raised in the US, she moved to Britain more than 20 years ago to write her PhD on feminist theatre. For many years she worked as a writer and presenter of university courses and art reviews on TV and radio for the BBC, as a professional performer and as a director at various comedy companies. She has written and edited 13 books and many articles. She found her way into the field of media technology in her early years at the BBC, when trying to invent a new interactive technology tool that would allow the six million viewers of some of her Shakespeare lectures on BBC Two to respond to her.


Where does the social ethos in her work originate? Having grown up in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious house in a vibrant neighbourhood in New York, she realised from a young age “that everyone needs a unique scaffolding of support, belief, encouragement and skills to build their own social structures, to find their own pathways“. Her very poor eyesight made her aware of just how important it can be to have access to technology, whether it be super-strength contact lenses or speech synthesising machines and eye control technologies for dance. And, as a daughter of a former special needs teacher and campaigner in the US feminist movement, she also learned from an early age how you enable people to find, and give voice to, themselves- politically and physically.


The Many Talents of Lizbeth Goodman

This is Goodman’s speciality: challenging arts and sciences to work together and making the results accessible. She brings together talented people from different backgrounds and professions to develop what she calls ”artist-made technology tools for extreme users“. The various teams create ”ethically and socially responsible media art work”. Examples of their activities include a system using mobile phones to track missing and exploited children. Or the ’haptic chair‘ designed by long-time collaborator Dr Brian Duffy, in which children with severe physical disabilities can sit and operate a 3D fly-through or a simple audio story-telling game on a screen in front of them. Goodman’s charity ’SafetyNet’ uses moderated chat-rooms and bespoke ‘smart garments,’ which contain hidden safety systems to help stop violence against women and children in America, Africa and Europe.


Another of Goodman’s talents is putting innovations into practice. In the SMARTlab PhD Programme she has run for 16 years, she emphasises the importance of an ethical and social commitment and practical engagement across disciplines. All the students are selected in part for their determination to make a real difference to the world, whether in the fields of Digital Media Arts, Performing Technologies, Assistive Technologies, ITC4D, Informatics, SMARTfashion or Learning Technologies, Gaming and Virtual Worlds.


On the University campus, the so-called ’MAGICbox‘ provides free access to technical equipment for people who would like to make 3D models of their own ideas – whether to prepare to design and sell a new product, or to design a learning space or living space of their own. “It is not always easy to make projects work,“ Goodman explains, ”but I am a stubborn optimist. There are always obstacles, some things have to be developed under the radar, but I look at the far horizon and keep going.“


It is this practical approach that brought Goodman into another avenue of work: tomorrow’s teaching and learning. In late 2008, she was appointed the new Director of Research at Futurelab, the UK think tank dedicated to transforming the way people learn using new technologies. The not-for-profit company based in Bristol also strives to “disseminate excitement” – ”in order to keep children eager and motivated“ (CEO Stephen Breslin). Goodman describes her new role as one of transformation and bridge building: “My task is to initiate new collaborative educational projects and social entrepreneurship models appropriate to the Web 2.0 world. But I will also undertake original research that expands the world’s ideas of what a ‘learning for all’ digital inclusion agenda can and should include.” At OEB, Goodman will be looking at some of the processes of future learning such as embodied learning, connected learning, learner voice or digital media literacy.


For more information on Lizbeth Goodman’s projects, click:


Smartlab with photos and videos
Trust Project
SafetyNet Charity


Lizbeth Goodman will speak in the plenary “Hindsight, Insight, Foresight, Oversight …: A Call for Learning Futures” on Friday, December 4th, 2009 from 09:15 – 11:00.

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