Having your iPhone speak in your voice might sound like a fun party trick, but for people with speaking and vocal challenges, it could be a game-changer.
Apple announced its Personal Voice accessibility feature back in May and, at WWDC 2023, showed developers how they could use "expressive speech synthesis" to let their own apps speak in the users' voices.
Even though I do not personally have a need for this, I was anxious to see and hear this important accessibility tool in action. Apple's iOS 17 Public Beta, which arrived on July 12, would be my first opportunity.
Ed. note: An iOS 17 update finally enabled the functioning feature. Scroll to the end for a quick update and link to my video demo.
Personal Voice is a thoughtful and potentially powerful tool for capturing someone's voice before they loose it to degenerative disease or disability. It lets their iPhone speak for them in the voice they may no longer be able to produce themselves.
In other words, it lives under Accessibility for a reason. There are many iOS accessibility features (very, very many) that anyone can repurpose, including shortcuts like tapping the back of the iPhone to activate a feature, VoiceOver, and Reachability. I fully expect some owners will repurpose Personal Voice for their own needs, whatever they are.
In iOS 17, Personal Voice lives in the "Speech" section of your iPhone's Accessibility settings (under Settings). Inside, there's a nice clear blue link for "Create Personal Voice."
The process begins by telling you what to expect and how to prepare to create your own Personal Voice. This is where I learned I'd be recording 150(!) phrases. The instructions promise to create and securely store your Personal Voice.
Apple likes to do all this processing and personal information storage locally for maximum privacy. This also means you can export all the original recorded phrases off the iPhone at any time.
Personal Voice encourages you to find a quiet space. Our office has a studio that mostly cuts out outside noise, so I chose that.
To maximize effectiveness, you should speak in a normal and consistent tone of voice and the setup asks you to keep the phone between 6 and 12 inches from your face.
150 phrases is a lot. Fortunately, you can pause and save your progress at any time. Unfortunately, I wanted to finish the process all in one go and neglected to bring a chair. So I stood, uncomfortably, in one spot during the lengthy recording process.
You begin the process by giving your Personal Voice a name. I liked that the default setup already included my first name, so I left that in place. It does appear that you could store multiple voice profiles on one iPhone.
Before I started speaking all the phrases, Personal Voice did a quick sound quality check. I hit the big red record button, read the phrase...and got an error message. This is a beta, after all. Even so, the system allowed me to continue on to the actual phrase recording process.
Once I started recording, I didn't have to hit any buttons, I just spoke the phrase, the phone listened, and then after a moment, it moved onto the next one.
I was thrilled to be finished with my 150 phrases (they're inane and mostly read like Jeopardy! questions), and couldn't wait to hear IOS 17's interpretation of my voice. But there was one more significant hurdle.
The iPhone (in my case an iPhone 14 Pro Max running the latest A16 Bionic CPU) needed an entire day to locally process the audio and generate my Personal Voice. Processing pauses if the phone is not both locked and being charged. Basically, if you plan to try Personal Voice, make sure you have a day to not touch your phone.
In my case, processing finished by the time I woke up the next morning. I'd say it took about 17 hours to process. At least, I think so. Even though the phone reported that my Personal Voice was ready, it was nowhere to be found in Settings/Accessibility/Live Speech/Voices.
Like I said, this is a beta.
I contacted Apple to see if, perhaps, I missed a control or setting, but I think Personal Voice may simply not be fully enabled in this first iOS 17 Public Beta.
If you get Personal Voice to work, you'll activate its use by triple-pressing the power/sleep button while in any app. You can try this out in Messages and the app will play back whatever message you typed in your Personal Voice. If that voice isn't set up, the iPhone will use a different default voice. In my case it was "Samantha." The system will also let you save some favorite phrases that can be repeated in your Personal Voice.
Even though I failed to get Personal Voice working, I still think this is an exciting and valuable accessibility feature for those who might struggle to speak or even be in danger of losing their voices. This iOS 17 update might be a great way to preserve a piece of their identity voice for themselves and their loved ones, allowing them to still communicate in a simulacrum of their voice.
Update 9-7-2023: A recent iOS 17 beta update finally gave me access to my Personal voice. It's a remarkably flexible and powerful tool that I could enable by simply triple-clicking the power button. That brought up a text dialogue box where I could type the phrases I wanted my Personal Voice to speak.
I ended up using it to create this TikTok.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.