Professionals who use their voices to make a living are intensely
aware of the problems tired and overstressed vocal cords can
cause. The healing process includes learning proper use of the
voice and practice, practice, practice.
But for the recuperating preacher or teacher, how are those practice
sessions possible without turning entire congregations or classrooms
into captive audiences? Enter modern technology, with its ability
to simulate almost any real-life setting.
A system originally developed to help people who suffer from a paralyzing dread
of public speaking now has been introduced into the voice therapy program at
the Emory Voice Center. A customized virtual reality (VR) therapy simulating
small and large meeting environments has been developed by Virtually Better Inc.
to give patients the opportunity to practice in a realistic setting while still
in the therapeutic environment.
Voice therapy, not unlike others types of therapy, is conducted in a step-by-step
fashion: When one skill is learned, another, more difficult skill is introduced.
The difference is that once the patient is ready to practice, he or she needs
an audience. That aspect of the therapy is not always accessible, practical or
desirable—for either the therapist or the patient.
“Many of my patients are performers, attorneys, politicians, schoolteachers
or ministers,” said Edie Hapner, assistant professor of otolaryngology
and voice therapist at the Emory Voice Center. “Each day with voice impairment
becomes a potential detriment to their careers, their clients, their students,
their parishioners. This technology gives them the opportunity to practice newly
learned skills in front of an audience in the convenient and safe environment
of the lab, with the therapist close by for immediate feedback.”
Each new patient is evaluated for the source of his or her voice problems, which
can be caused by a variety of reasons (lesions, aging, hormonal changes, overuse
of the vocal cords, etc.). Once a diagnosis has been made, a therapy program
is developed to overcome the problem and to teach efficient use of the voice.
Most programs range from four to six sessions, depending on a patient’s
needs and schedule. Once that initial program is accomplished, the patient’s
next step is to use the newly developed skills. When possible, this part of the
treatment takes place in front of a live audience, but often the therapist is
not able to observe the patient in a real-life setting. VR presents a feasible
“We want our patients to be treated and released back to their careers
as soon as possible,” said Michael Johns III, director of the voice center
and assistant professor of otolaryngology. “When I realized we had this
technology right here at Emory, it was obvious we could put it to good use by
bringing the audience to the patient. Even though the virtual audience is not
real, the patients are completely immersed and seem to have the same sense of
In the virtual setting, patients wear a VR helmet with a screen in front of their
eyes on which the simulated environment is projected. The illusion is so convincing
that patients are able to stand at a “podium” and speak to large
or small audiences, even projecting PowerPoint slides as they might in an actual
“This is a real-time system we use to obtain insight into ‘real-life’ voice
use,” Hapner said. “The patients become immersed in the environment,
forget they are in a therapy room and allow the therapist to observe their actual
speech behaviors and voice skills in a realistic setting.”
Emory Voice Center, the first to use VR technology for this purpose, plans to
conduct a study to evaluate the advantages of its new resource.