A child plays a beta version of SpokeIt, a speech therapy video game designed by UCSC grad student Jared Duval.
(Courtesy UC Santa Cruz)
Business & Technology

UCSC grad student’s video game makes ‘speech magic’ for children with cleft palate

Jared Duval and the team behind SpokeIt are harnessing language software to provide speech therapy for children with cleft lip or cleft palate with an accessible game coming soon to Apple devices.

For Jared Duval, the opportunity to leave a positive impact on someone’s life is all that matters.

Duval, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, is aiming to do just that with language software SpokeIt. The kid-friendly video game is designed to help improve speech patterns for children with cleft palates.

“It is really exciting to work on something so visually and technically challenging and also having an impact on improving life,” said the Massachusetts native, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in computational media.

Approximately one in 700 children is born with a cleft, a condition in which body tissues do not fuse properly during fetal development — often the upper lip and roof of the mouth, resulting in cleft palates. The condition can affect one’s speech, hearing, breathing and eating habits.

The game has been in development for several years, with the prototype being designed mainly by former UCSC grad student Zak Rubin, whom Duval worked with for six months before finalizing the game’s current iteration over the past three years.

A screenshot from SpokeIt.
A screenshot from SpokeIt, the speech therapy video game designed by UCSC grad student Jared Duval and others, which aims to help children recovering from cleft lip and palate surgery.
(Courtesy UC Santa Cruz)

That final concept was largely inspired by “Dora the Explorer,” Duval said, because “children are already screaming at the TV.” It was that notion of yelling at a screen that served as the catalyst for the game’s current state, which Duval said is about two months away from release for Apple devices, with an Android release to follow.

While SpokeIt is built with children ages approximately 3 to 10 in mind, the team envisions “anyone who wants to improve their speech” finding uses for it; it’s set up for hands-free play to accommodate those with motor impairment, and has closed captioning and audio-visual elements for players with hearing or visual impairment, the game’s website notes.

SpokeIt is centered around a talking star named Nova, voiced by Duval’s former roommate and fellow Capitola resident Mary Mason. Mason’ voice serves as a soothing guide for children, explaining an overlapping story of how Nova requires “speech magic” to restore her world.

Children obtain said magic by playing a series of daily mini-games that focus on specific speech patterns and sound; targeted words must be said aloud as they appear on screen to complete each game. Each session is approximately 10 minutes, and completion unlocks the next day’s game. In total, the entirety of SpokeIt is about a week long, Duval said.

“It can scale this complicated problem: speech for children with cleft,” he said.

UC Santa Cruz partnered with Smile Train, a nonprofit focused on cleft recovery and services, to complete SpokeIt’s design. The design team also worked with UC Davis Children’s Hospital in testing its initial beta form. The team is awaiting final medical approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before the public launch, Duval said.

With gaps in coverage and high costs for both corrective surgery and ensuing speech therapy, Duval said he hopes SpokeIt will provide relief for caregivers and parents at home, and that it could be used on site by medical professionals post-surgery.

SpokeIt can be played in only English now, but Spanish and Mandarin versions will be accessible soon, Duval said. The team plans to release the game in the U.S., China, India and Spain; the American version requires a $10 subscription fee, while the game will be free in other nations.

Jared Duval (far right) sits with other members of the SpokeIt team.
Jared Duval (far right) sits with other members of the SpokeIt team.
(Courtesy UC Santa Cruz)

The price tag for U.S. users wasn’t always part of the plan, Duval said.

“A year ago, I was like, SpokeIt will be free. [It] was really hard to accept that operating costs have to come from somewhere,” he said, noting that the subscription fee here in the States will help fund the release of the free game overseas and in communities where families cannot afford speech therapy.

Duval and the team are also hoping the game can reach beyond cleft patients — “I can see it benefitting quite a bit of stroke survivors,” he said, noting that stroke patients can lose some of their speech ability — and are soliciting feedback via the SpokeIt site from users living with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mary Mason’s last name as Moses.