Entrepreneur helps people overcome speech disabilities through video games, combining speech therapy with speech recognition technology and AI.

Erich Reiter was a speech recognition engineer in Belgium, working on the technology behind Apple’s Siri, when a close friend was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

He watched helplessly as his friend lost the ability to speak and began using a communication device. “I remember the day it took him about three minutes to say I need water,” he recalls. “It was very unsettling. Heartbreaking.” The experience moved him to quit his job and pursue a masters’ degree in speech and language pathology, convinced that the field “can benefit tremendously from more advanced technology.”

In 2017, he started working with Lukas Latacz, a computer engineer specialised in algorithms for people with speech disorders. Together, they came up with an idea to help people overcome speech disabilities through video games, combining speech recognition technology and AI.

“It started as a small project,” says Erich. “Then we saw the faces of children using their voices to destroy a boulder, steer a rocketship—they were using their voices in ways they hadn’t before. That excitement showed that we were onto something.”

Officially launched in 2019, their company, Say It Labs, was a finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s 2023 Social Innovation Tournament, which recognises entrepreneurs who are making a difference socially, ethically, or environmentally.

When you can’t just say it

According to Erich’s calculations, and based on commonly used statistics, more than 600 million people worldwide have a speech or language disorder—stuttering, articulation disorders, Parkinson’s—the list is long.

“When you have a disorder where you can’t communicate effectively, you end up on the fringes of society a lot of the time,” he says. “People are at risk of social exclusion. Often, they don’t find the jobs they want, don’t finish their education, have issues with relationships.” The condition may lead to depression, or even suicide.

Using further extrapolation, Erich calculated that only 9% of all people with a speech disorder receive targeted therapy. Many developing countries have no speech pathologists, and even in wealthy countries, speech therapy can be expensive and difficult to access.

However, most people do have a smart phone or a tablet. Recent technological advances, such as machine learning and big data, can turn these devices into “therapists” that are affordable and available 24/7.

More than a game

Erich and Lukas developed their first game, Stutter Stars (formerly Fluency Friends), with input from speech-language pathologist Dr. Susan Fosnot, who developed a highly successful efficacy-based programme 20 years ago. “Erich and Lukas graciously took the programme and made it a video game, which thrilled me,” she says.

They launched a non-beta version in English in October 2023, with paid subscription plans. As Erich points out, the game costs a fraction of the price of speech therapy, with unlimited access. As the company grows, it will add more languages, and create games for other speech pathologies.

Stutter Stars follows a character, Zumi, who has had his voice stolen and finds himself on a desert island. A series of characters walk him through various speech therapy techniques, as he sounds out words and moves from island to island and level to level.

The game includes typical video game elements, such as randomness and boss fights. “We hide speech therapy, in a way,” says Erich. “Kids don’t want to feel like they’re in speech therapy, they just want to get access to a game.” Mindfulness exercises are another feature they quietly slipped in—for example, a player breathes in and out slowly to blow up a virtual hot air balloon.

Stutter Stars includes 40-50 hours of unique gameplay and Say It Labs recommends at least 15 minutes of play per day to have an effect. Although the precise cause of stuttering is still unknown, most researchers agree that it is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Erich says, “We’re centering on something called neuroplasticity (the brain’s potential to create new neural pathways). Intensity matters. If you want to see changes in the brain, you need a lot of repeated practice.” There is also evidence that playing video games increases the rate at which new neural connections happen.

Virtual play with real results 

When people play Stutter Stars, the system gathers data and produces reports on their progress, which speech therapists can then consult for guidance. Say It Labs also plans to analyse the game’s impact over time, and to measure players’ brain activity, starting in 2024.

In the meantime, users have given it top ratings. One App Store review says, “I’ve gone through multiple speech therapist(s) and have never found something as effective as playing this game. The techniques are immediately applicable to real world situations…While targeted towards children, this app is truly for anyone who stutters. I can’t recommend it enough.”

Dr. Fosnot uses Stutter Stars with her own patients once she’s taught them the basics. She says, “I wasn’t expecting this, but when the kids go on the game for 10 minutes a day, they don’t need the speech therapy anymore.”

With proper treatment, speech disorders don’t have to be an obstacle to success; famous people with stutters include Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, and Joe Biden. Say It Labs hopes that by playing its games, young people can dare to have big dreams…or simply feel comfortable sharing their thoughts out loud.