Tech for the future at Liopa


It doesn’t matter if you’re from Bangor in Northern Ireland or Wales, or Perth in Scotland or Australia: when it comes to lip-reading technology, accents don’t matter – only the words you say.
The end-goal for an innovative start-up based in Belfast is to have a real-time lip reader than can recognise  very large vocabularies across multiple languages. That’s a little way off but there are many nearer term use-cases that Liopa can support in the interim.

By 2021, half the internet searches we make online will be speech-driven, rather than typed, almost a third will be done without a screen, and as a result it’s estimated the voice recognition market will be a $601 million industry in the next two years.

The way we access online information is rapidly evolving, and this is driving a small but smart team working in a bright space in the Northern Ireland Science Park. Liopa is creating visual speech recognition (VSR) technology that has the potential not only to help you get better directions while driving, but also transform the way we prove we are who we say we are and support people with limited speech to communicate with others.

“We believe VSR is the future,” says Liam McQuillan. A veteran of the telecomms software industry, with over 20 years’ experience, he helped to create Liopa in 2015, after the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) spent ten years researching the technology. He is joined by Richard McConnell, Dr Darryl Stewart and Dr Fabian Campbell-West.

“Initially we were focused on looking at someone’s lip movements as a unique identifier – like fingerprints. But for a variety of reasons- it is incredibly difficult to ensure the technology can get it 100% right – we moved away from that.

“The first commercial deployment of our technology will make Facial Recognition systems more robust to spoofing attacks. Currently if someone wants to spoof your security system when it only requires visual proof, say to unlock your smart phone, that’s simple: they can spoof the system with a high-res photo of you or a simple video. What our technology does is detect liveness. The user is asked to speak or mime a random series of digits that pop up on the screen. That’s sent instantly to the cloud where we verify the response and thus confirm whether or not a live person is present. We can detect if someone has spliced a video, and there’s a time-limit too. It’s basically incredibly secure.”

Another benefit of this technology is the cost. Detecting liveness through the use of hardware (e.g. infrared camera) significantly increases the retail price of the smartphone. The Liopa approach is software based and considerably cheaper.

“We are getting a lot of interest from companies who provide identity verification services – this can involve validating the photograph on your passport, for example, by taking a selfie. Such systems are very prone to spoofing, thus the interest.”

Dr Campbell-West says it’s allowing them to make their name in one market, with the objective of establishing in others next.

“Another big thing is improving the accuracy of automated speech recognition (ASR). ASR is the technology behind today’s virtual personal assistants such as siri, cortana and in-car voice activation systems. It’s flawed at the moment because in a high-noise environment it can’t differentiate each word accurately. We analyse the video stream which doesn’t need to hear anything – it can tell what the words are by the way our lips move. Combining the ASR with our VSR improves the overall accuracy of these systems”.

Liopa is also working on a project with a health trust in England that aims to tackle the problem of communication for Tracheostomy patients who have very limited vocal cord movement, and find speaking difficult. Using lip reading technology, the team is devising an improved system that is far faster and more cost effective than the existing method of eye tracking recognition.

And there are major benefits for Liopa to be based in Belfast. Dr Campbell-West comes from Bristol and says the support he can access here is second to none. “The small pots of money – the innovation vouchers, Propel and Ignite, support from Invest NI - £15,000 can help you get far enough when you’re 22 years old and have a dream. It all helps.”

The team might not be in their twenties anymore, but they still have big dreams. “If we can prove our VSR technology is accurate, and can support a large range of vocabulary, a lot of companies will be keen to partner with us,” says Liam. “We believe the voice is the future. And so do the markets. Our plan is to have our cloud-based VSR engine providing video to speech capability for a multitude of 3rd party voice-driven applications, across many market verticals ”

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