New software to make rail station messages clearer

THE age-old bane of travellers struggling to hear announcements in noisy train stations and airports could be banished with new technology that alters speech to make it clearer.

Travellers wait for an announcement in Glasgow's Central Station. Picture: Robert Perry

Sports venues could also benefit from software, unveiled today, which modifies the human voice so it is more audible against background noise.

The volume at which such announcements are broadcast could also be lowered while remaining as clear.

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It could also benefit internet calls made via the likes of Skype, and satnav systems.

The device, which can be added to existing public address (PA) systems, could also make announcers who speak too fast or mumble easier to understand.

It was developed from the Listening Talker project, in which researchers from Edinburgh University, along with scientists from Greece, Spain and Sweden, studied how speech was perceived by listeners. They pinpointed the components of speech that were most easily heard by people in a noisy place.

Listeners paid most attention to the parts of speech that are easiest to hear, and used those to decipher what was being said. Researchers developed a computer program to analyse spoken words and enhance these sounds.

Professor Simon King, director of the university’s Centre for Speech Technology Research, who led the project, said: “It sounds like the same person but it jumps out of the background noise. Speech has lots of component sounds, some of which are needed for understanding, so we have enhanced the crucial parts and omitted the redundant. This makes it easier to understand in a noisy environment.”

Dr Cassia Valentini Botinhao, of the university’s School of Informatics, said: “Noisy environments make it difficult to understand what is said and simply making speech louder isn’t the smartest solution. Our findings could offer an alternative, by making speech more intelligible without turning up the volume.”

David Sidebottom, of watchdog Passenger Focus, said: “For passengers in noisy train or bus stations, trying to work out if they need to be in a different spot or if their transport has been delayed, clear and accurate information is crucial.”

A spokeswoman for ScotRail, which runs nearly all of Scotland’s 344 stations, said: “We would be happy to learn more about the university’s public announcement software.”

Network Rail, which runs Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Central stations, said: “The PA systems at both Central and Waverley were renewed in 2010 and the recorded messages at both are already passed through software to make them more easily understood.”


• Did you notice a difference? Will this help you on your commute? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.