South Side company's app turns user's text into debates between candidates

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During an election cycle where voters have heard from candidates, the candidates' spouses, the candidates' favorite actors and the candidates' favorite actors' chairs, it's hard to believe with only 47 days to go that any key voices haven't spoken out.

But if things unfold as creators of the new SoapBoxing debate app hope, the nation will hear thousands more opinions before November -- thoughts that might not come from anyone inside a presidential campaign but will sound an awful lot like they do.

"We had the Obama voice and wanted to do something fun and entertaining with it, and the iPhone platform was the obvious choice for that," said Patrick Dexter, director of business development at South Side-based text-to-speech company Cepstral.

Founded more than 10 years ago as an Innovation Works startup, the privately owned company has never had more than 12 employees, said CEO Dan Bagley. Cepstral is known for creating talking computer exams for disabled students and for English-to-Arabic translation equipment.

SoapBoxing is an iOS app that converts a user's text to the voice of either President Barack Obama, a Democrat, or Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It uses cartoon images and sound effects to wrap all the elements into an animated video. The app allows for immediate sharing of the resulting video on YouTube or Facebook and through email.

Since its release in its earlier form in August, more than 100 YouTube videos have been created. An updated version is scheduled for release later this month. The app is available for 99 cents at Apple's app store.

While this isn't the company's first experience in the entertainment industry -- Cepstral created a voice for an amorous Shake Weight in a 2010 episode of Comedy Central's "South Park" -- Mr. Dexter said the idea came from realizing just how much fun people had using the text-to-speech conversion tool on the company's website.

"Our own experiences with our own friends and families, and through looking at the logs we keep, is that people were having a lot of fun trying to make these computer voices say all kinds of silly things," he said. "It became obvious people would also enjoy doing that if it was a voice that they recognize, like President Obama."

With four years worth of publicly available sound of the president, creating the framework for Mr. Obama's voice was easier than for Mr. Romney's.

Adam Wayment, Cepstral's vice president of engineering and computational linguistics, said the staff modified one of their existing voices to sound like Mr. Romney, while they only needed to recombine sounds from Mr. Obama's recordings to create new words.

"Sometimes the words will be very similar to what [Mr. Obama] recorded and sometimes not at all. We were able to say things that were never recorded because we recombined the sounds," he said.

Creating the sound was second nature to Cepstral employees, but officials had to turn to South Side-based Evil Genius Designs for the animation, special effects and the interface that automatically converts sound and animation files to a complete cartoon.

Evil Genius head of design Chris Stagno said the company had to create an entirely new process that makes a single video from two MP4 files and combines that video with sound and text recovered from Cepstral's cloud server. The entire process takes place through the phone, something Mr. Stagno thinks is only being done through SoapBoxing.

Another feature that came from Evil Genius is the scattering of special sound and animation effects that are triggered by keywords in a user's text.

A toolbar on the app allows users to incorporate effects such as cheers and whistles manually, but special words such as "health care" or "economy" could result in Mr. Obama's character standing behind an Obama Care booth donning a stethoscope or Mr. Romney's character hiding a dog from a PETA protest.

"We put in a bunch of cute little things where the more people play around with it, the more they'll discover what's really in the app," Mr. Stagno said.

As the group plans for an expected influx of new users following the update, they're also preparing for the idea of SoapBoxing beyond the presidential election.

Cepstral CEO Mr. Bagley said most users have been sticking to the political debate format, with a small majority expressing conservative views. However, the program also has been used for birthday greetings, get-well messages or for the novelty of using a well-known voice to insult a friend's favorite sports team.

Mr. Bagley said the options are pretty far-reaching with the program as it exists, but there's always room to add a new face from the political arena. "I think that whoever the next president is and [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin would be funny," he said.

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Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM

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