Lip-reading phones: Sounds of silence

A system out of Germany translates the electrical signals from facial muscles involved in speech, thus making it possible to communicate sans the noise. Bus rides might have just gotten a lot quieter.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

soundless communication
For now, the system requires users to attach nine electrodes to the face. And you thought your iPod wires were causing tangles on the train. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Still getting used to all those people with Bluetooth headsets walking down the street appearing to talk to themselves? Get ready for the still stranger sight of people talking to themselves--without making any noise.

Researchers from Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology are working on a system that converts mouth motions into synthesized speech, thus laying the groundwork for soundless cell phone calls (and ironically making us want to screech loudly in delight).

The technology relies on electromyography--a technique for recording electrical activity produced by muscles--to detect facial movements made while chatting. Once recorded, the pulses are transmitted to a device that records and amplifies them, then sends them along to a laptop via Bluetooth. Software turns the signals into text, which can then be spoken by a synthesizer.

"I was taking the train and the person sitting next to me was constantly chatting and I thought 'I need to change this'," Tanja Shultz, a professor of computer science at KIT, told BBC News. "We call it silent communication."

The soundless-speech getup, displayed last week at the CeBit tech fair in Hannover, Germany, currently requires nine electrodes to be attached to the user's face, which sure seems like a lot of trouble for a quieter train ride or moviegoing experience--and creates a Frankenstein effect more likely to attract attention than even the loudest phone blabbing.

But while the system probably won't be showing up in the average cell phone quite yet, it could initially be used to aid people who have lost their voice to illness or to instantly translate languages.

NASA has looked into the technique to enable communication in noisy environments like the Space Station, Shultz said. It could also be used to transmit confidential information like passwords and PINs--and, of course, really good office gossip.