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Startup founder uses virtual reality therapy to support the speech disorder community

January 28, 2022
Gareth Walkom

Founder, withVR

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Editor’s note: Meet Gareth Walkom, an entrepreneur dedicated to helping others with speech disorders.

Turning life experience into innovation

Did you know that 3% of Americans have a speech disorder, while 1% of the world’s population have a stutter? Just getting what they need in everyday interactions can be stressful, which intensifies when the stakes are raised during job interviews, presentations, public speaking, and other activities. As a result, some people with speech disorders may avoid conversations and relationships, and risk being denied jobs because of a difference in how they speak.

As a person who stutters, I know firsthand the ableism that people with a speech disorder can encounter in wanting to use their voice in a judgemental world: the frustration of sometimes not being able to say exactly what you want to say and therefore speaking less in speaking situations. And the educational and career opportunities are lost when doors remain closed to us, especially when employers advertise their jobs as requiring someone who speaks the language ‘fluently’.

While researchers still don’t definitively know what causes stuttering, emerging technologies are giving us new and promising pathways for improving the quality of life of people with speech disorders. 

That’s why after years of researching and testing potential therapeutic uses of virtual reality, and with the support of the Google for Startups Cloud Program, I founded withVR on International Stuttering Awareness Day (October 22) in 2020. The mission of withVR is to prepare people with speech disorders for real-life speaking situations by utilizing the power of virtual reality. 

Working through it

One of the difficulties in adapting to any disability is the opportunity to work through it in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. withVR provides a virtual space for individuals, in collaboration with their speech therapists, to practice real-world speaking scenarios in safe, controlled environments. 

Imagine being able to raise your hand in class and give your opinion without hesitation, ordering the meal you want rather than something that’s easier to say, or sit across the table from an avatar of an employer and explain why you are the right person for your dream job. Then further customize the speaking situation and its surroundings to challenge yourself and be ready for anything. That’s what withVR offers individuals and their speech therapists.

Making VR come to life

To bring the withVR vision to life, we are developing applications using the Unity game engine on Google Cloud with integrated Firebase services including authentication, web hosting, storage, and database. It’s a powerful combination that’s enabled us to build industrial-strength applications that we’ve rapidly deployed on a global basis. Today we are already collaborating with 80+ labs, clinics, and hospitals in more than 20 different countries worldwide.

These organizations help us to test and refine a virtual reality application to support people in achieving their speech goals and build comfort through immersive VR experiences using easily available viewers like Google Cardboard

The application works in conjunction with a web app through which speech therapists configure customized VR scenarios for their patients to use. As no real-life speaking situation is ever exactly the same, customization of VR scenarios is vital. They can construct different scenes, create and script avatars, and through the Google Text-to-Speech API can even choose from hundreds of different voices in a variety of languages. This gives them the flexibility to create many unique speaking situations for their clients no matter where they are in the world.

Progress from the practice sessions is presented through a dashboard that provides therapists with a tool to monitor their clients' progress and provide feedback and encouragement.

No shortage of support

My founder’s journey has been supported by many passionate people. The Google for Startups Cloud Program has been instrumental in helping us come so far in the first year, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. There are many capabilities in Firebase and Google Cloud that we have yet to explore, and through the startup program I now have a Google Mentor who can help guide that exploration. 

We also joined the 2Gether-International (2GI) Tech Cohort, which is supported by Google for Startups and is built for and run by entrepreneurs with disabilities. At the end of the 10-week cohort, we finished with a pitch competition, where I was one of six selected founders to pitch in just three minutes. I was very fortunate to win the Best Overall Pitch Award, gaining 10,000 USD in seed funding. This award not only highlights the potential of withVR, but also showcases that anyone can pitch their idea in a short amount of time no matter their difference. 

Working with 2GI also gave me the opportunity to collaborate and learn from other founders who have disabilities. It’s a safe space where I don’t have to explain my everyday challenges and can focus on the all-important task of advancing the vision of withVR, while seeing how others use technology in their domain. 

Building on a strong foundation

I’m amazed to look back and see what we’ve accomplished in just one year and humbled by the thousands of lives we’ve touched. Every day we receive valuable real-life feedback from people in the field---both clinicians and those with speech differences who benefit from VR therapy. That knowledge tells us that we are heading in the right direction and opening our eyes to new possibilities for where to take withVR. And inspiring us to keep moving ahead.

If you’d like to participate in testing or if you are speech therapist or researcher, please feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to show you how you can contribute to a world where anyone with a speech disorder can truly use their voice in any situation. If you’d like to take part, contact us at hello@withvr.app.

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