Mutatio Vox Populi
Changing the Voice of the People
It has just been announced that Anshe Chung Studios Limited (ACS) is partnering with Cepstral, a company that provides Text To Speech (TTS) to “provide its entire range of differently sounding English language voices, which are translated from the text user’s type during chat sessions, to enable ACS virtual members to use speech intonations of their choice.” In other words, the ever creative former “hooker” and land baroness of SL has figured out another way to “game” the system.
Text To Speech Technology
I love text-to-speech technology. In fact, I frequently use Dragon Naturally Speaking to write drafts of letters, proposal and even blog posts. I get transcripts of my Google Voice voicemail on my smart phone and have recently been playing with Jott Assistant a personal transcription tool that is easily integrated into other applications.
Why The Disguise?
The official press release for this announcement states that likely reasons for people to use this technology are: “because either they are shy, have permanent or temporary speech impairment, want to disguise their voice because they are famous or cannot speak English.” These all sound (pun intended) like reasonable uses for the technology. I have personally met people who confessed to not liking voice because of their shyness or embarrassment over their accent when they spoke English. I have never encountered a “famous” person who was afraid of having their voice recognized, although this reason might actually give us a hint about an unspoken market Ms. Chung sees for text to voice. Yep, you guessed it, SEX!
Gender Role Play’s New Tool
The media has devoted a significant amount of attention to the more prurient aspects of Second Life sexuality. Less has been written about gender role play as a part of this phenomenon.
Despite a lack of “hard” statistics, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of those engaged in the sex trade (escorts, strippers, etc.) in Second Life as female avatars are actually male. In fact, someone I spoke with told me they had first-hand knowledge of a family where the father and oldest son joined the wife/mother working as virtual escorts, because “the money was good!”
In addition to the sex trade, there are numerous persons in SL who for various reasons choose to represent themselves with avatars that are the opposite gender. Once again, numbers are illusive, but I know it’s a larger market than the “famous person” niche mentioned in the press release.
Ethics and Gender Identity
Although a discussion on the ethics of gender identity is not the main purpose of this post, the ACS announcement once again raises important questions for the SL community. Is there ever a situation where portraying oneself as a different gender is unethical? What if a person says they are using the ACS text to voice system because they are shy, but are really using it to mask their gender? I can’t end this section of the post without mentioning an excellent blog piece I read today, while doing my research. Second Life is a Post-Gender environment addresses why many SL residents resist sharing their true gender.
A Different “Slant”
Although sex may be one of the markets Ms. Chung hopes to cash in on, I’m guessing the true “pearl” lies within the growing number and vast potential market of Asian users, that are part of her own heritage. Although Europeans, followed by North American users, make up the bulk of Second Life accounts, these numbers are dwarfed by the potential number of users in Asia, especially China. Japan and S. Korea already have high adoption rates, helped by both country’s virtually ubiquitous ultra-high-speed broadband infrastructure. China’s Internet use is still stunted for lack of infrastructure, but that won’t last forever.
So what do all these Asian users have in common? They have an incredible fixation with all things Western, including the English Language. To give you an idea how big the Chinese English language market is, just read the Wall Street Journal. Last month Pearson Education bought the Chinese English Language School business of Wall Street English for a record-breaking $145 Million! This, coupled with the burgeoning success of the Virtual World language training phenomenon Languagelab.com, make me think Ms. Chung has likely picked yet another winner.