Overall Objectives
Research Program
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Highlights of the Year
New Software and Platforms
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Section: Research Program

Explicit Modeling of Speech Production and Perception

Speech signals are the consequence of the deformation of the vocal tract under the effect of the movements of the articulators (jaw, lips, tongue, ...) to modulate the excitation signal produced by the vocal cords or air turbulence. These deformations are visible on the face (lips, cheeks, jaw) through the coordination of different orofacial muscles and skin deformation induced by the latter. These deformations may also express different emotions. We should note that human speech expresses more than just phonetic content, to be able to communicate effectively. In this project, we address the different aspects related to speech production from the modeling of the vocal tract up to the production of expressive audiovisual speech. Phonetic contrasts used by the phonological system of any language result from constraints imposed by the nature of the human speech production apparatus. For a given language these contrasts are organized so as to guarantee that human listeners can identify (categorize) sounds robustly. The study of the categorization of sounds and prosody thus provides a complementary view on speech signals by focusing on the discrimination of sounds by humans, particularly in the context of language learning.

Articulatory modeling

Modeling speech production is a major issue in speech sciences. Acoustic simulation makes the link between articulatory and acoustic domains. Unfortunately this link cannot be fully exploited because there is almost always an acoustic mismatch between natural and synthetic speech generated with an articulatory model approximating the vocal tract. However, the respective effects of the geometric approximation, of the fact of neglecting some cavities in the simulation, of the imprecision of some physical constants and of the dimensionality of the acoustic simulation are still unknown. Hence, the first objective is to investigate the origin of the acoustic mismatch by designing more precise articulatory models, developing new methods to acquire tridimensional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) data of the entire vocal tract together with denoised speech signals, and evaluating several approaches of acoustic simulation. The articulatory data acquisition relies on a head-neck antenna at Nancy Hospital to acquire MRI of the vocal tract, and on the articulograph Carstens AG501 available in the laboratory.

Up to now, acoustic-to-articulatory inversion has been addressed as an instantaneous problem, articulatory gestures being recovered by concatenating local solutions. The second objective is thus to investigate how more elaborated strategies (a syllabus of primitive gestures, articulatory targets…) can be incorporated in the acoustic-to-articulatory inversion algorithms to take into account dynamic aspects.

Expressive acoustic-visual synthesis

Speech is considered as a bimodal communication means; the first modality is audio, provided by acoustic speech signals and the second one is visual, provided by the face of the speaker. In our approach, the Acoustic-Visual Text-To-Speech synthesis (AV-TTS) is performed simultaneously with respect to its acoustic and visible components, by considering a bimodal signal comprising both acoustic and visual channels. A first AV-TTS system was developed resulting in a talking head; the system relied on 3D-visual data and on an extension of our acoustic-unit concatenation text-to-speech synthesis system (SoJA). An important goal is to provide an audiovisual synthesis that is intelligible, both acoustically and visually. Thus, we continue working on adding visible components of the head through a tongue model and a lip model. We will also improve the TTS engine to increase the accuracy of the unit selection simultaneously into the acoustic and visual domains. To acquire the facial data, we consider using a marker-less motion capture system using a kinect-like system with a face tracking software, which constitutes a relatively low-cost alternative to the Vicon system.

Another challenging research goal is to add expressivity in the AV-TTS. The expressivity comes through the acoustic signal (prosody aspects) and also through head and eyebrow movements. One objective is to add a prosodic component in the TTS engine in order to take into account some prosodic entities such as emphasis (to highlight some important key words). One intended approach will be to explore an expressivity measure at sound, syllable and/or sentence levels that describes the degree of perception or realization of an expression/emotion (audio and 3D domain). Such measures will be used as criteria in the selection process of the synthesis system. To tackle the expressivity issue we will also investigate Hidden Markov Model (HMM) based synthesis which allows for easy adaption of the system to available data and to various conditions.

Categorization of sounds and prosody for native and non-native speech

Discriminating speech sounds and prosodic patterns is the keystone of language learning whether in the mother tongue or in a second language. This issue is associated with the emergence of phonetic categories, i.e., classes of sounds related to phonemes and prosodic patterns. The study of categorization is concerned not only with acoustic modeling but also with speech perception and phonology. Foreign language learning raises the issue of categorizing phonemes of the second language given the phonetic categories of the mother tongue. Thus, studies on the emergence of new categories, whether in the mother tongue (for people with language deficiencies) or in a second language, must rely upon studies on native and non-native acoustic realizations of speech sounds and prosody, and on perceptual experiments. Concerning prosody, studies are focused on native and non-native realizations of modalities (e.g., question, affirmation, command, ...), as well as non-native realizations of lexical accents and focus (emphasis).

For language learning, the analysis of the prosody and of the acoustic realization of the sounds aims at providing automatic feedbacks to language learners with respect to acquisition of prosody as well as acquisition of a correct pronunciation of the sounds of the foreign language. Concerning the mother tongue we are interested in the monitoring of the process of sound categorization in the long term (mainly at primary school) and its relation with the learning of reading and writing skills [7] , especially for children with language deficiencies.