Siri’s original voice now calls for a more accessible web

Susan Bennett’s voice was used for Apple’s Siri from 2011 to 2013.

UserWay

Even if you don’t know Susan Bennett’s name, you will probably recognize her voice. As the original Siri, Bennett has become a reliable presence in the lives of many iPhone users, responding to various requests and performing voice commands. Her voice work has also been helpful to disabled smartphone users, she says.

But make no mistake, Bennett herself is not a technician.

“I’m terrible with technology,” she told me on a Zoom call from her home in Atlanta. “It’s not at all intuitive to me.”

Other than her iPhone and Mac, which she uses for voice recordings, Bennett says her interactions with anything tech-related is minimal. That’s why she was shocked when she found out in late 2011 that her voice was being used for Apple’s new virtual assistant Siri.

“A fellow voice actor emailed me and said, ‘Hey, we’re playing with this new iPhone [feature]. Isn’t that you? and I went to the Apple site and listened and I was like, “Oh, wow. Well, what does that mean?”

This meant that his voice would become a central part of people’s digital lives, doing everything from providing answers to search requests, sharing weather forecasts and giving directions. From Siri’s release in October 2011 until 2013, Bennett’s voice was used for the assistant, until Apple replaced it with new voice actors. (For the record, Bennett never used Siri when it was her voice, saying, “It was just too scary,” but she now uses the virtual assistant.)

Siri has been especially helpful to disabled iPhone users, Bennett notes. After revealing herself to be the voice of the virtual assistant in 2013, she says she received tons of mail from people who are blind or have other disabilities saying they use Siri all the time.

“It was really their connection to being able to get on the tech train like we all are now,” Bennett said. “That’s one of the things I was a little proud of about Siri, is that she can help people do things that they normally couldn’t do on their own.”

Today, Bennett appears in an advertisement for web accessibility company UserWay, which ensures that sites comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of American adults have some type of disability, but tech companies haven’t always considered these users when designing products. and services. In fact, 98% of US websites are not fully accessible, according to a report by web accessibility company accessiBe.

Additionally, Americans with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to never go online, according to the Pew Research Center, and are about 20% less likely to subscribe to home broadband and own a computer, smartphone, or phone. Tablet. This prompts many tech companies, from Apple to Google to Microsoft, to expand their accessibility efforts to ensure their products and services can be used by everyone.


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Apple, for example, rolled out a screen reading technology called VoiceOver to the iPhone 3GS in 2009, which helps blind users navigate their device. The company also launched a people detection feature last year, which lets blind and visually impaired iPhone and iPad users know how close someone is to them. Microsoft broke new ground in 2018 with the launch of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a $ 100 device designed to help gamers of all skill levels play. Last week, the company unveiled its Surface Adaptive Kit to improve accessibility for laptops, which includes a variety of textured stickers to identify keys, ports, and cables. And Google has rolled out a handful of new accessibility features for Android users, including the ability to control your phone and communicate using facial gestures.

Bennett reports the importance of digital accessibility to his own work.

“A lot of times I send people to my website; if they think about hiring me, I’ll say there are demos on my website, ”she says. “For a lot of people, the website is a sales tool. So if all of your potential customers can’t even get to your site, that needs to be fixed.”

Become the voice of Siri

Bennett, who started out as a musician before embarking on dubbing, never planned to become Siri’s voice. In 2005, she walked into a studio to record what she was told was generic phone messaging with an interactive voice response company.

“Of course, it was a lot more than that,” Bennett said in retrospect. Apple never asked her to use her voice, she added, and she was never compensated for being used as Siri. Instead, she was only paid for the original recordings. “This is true of all the other original voices,” Bennett says of the British and Australian talent whose voices were also used.

Apple did not immediately respond to CNET’s request for comment. When CNN announced in 2013 that Bennett was the woman behind Siri, the publication noted that while Apple wouldn’t confirm it, an audiology expert said he was “100%” sure it was her.

She says the talent that came after her was paid for being used as Siri, in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement. While Bennett admits that she’s upset that she didn’t get the same compensation, she appreciates being legally allowed to talk about the original Siri’s expression.

But Bennett notes that she was initially hesitant to reveal herself as Siri’s voice because she feared she was “typed and stereotypical, and that’s something you don’t want to be as a voice actor. “.

She adds: “Because it happened and it wasn’t something I aspired to or worked for – or got paid for – it took a while for me to decide whether to go. reveal. I really didn’t want to face the stardom. But my husband and my son were both saying, “Oh, you are missing out on this amazing opportunity. You have to do it. “And finally one day the stars aligned or something and I decided to go ahead and do it.”

Bennett says she thinks a lot about the future of virtual assistants and fair compensation for voice actors.

“Already they’re taking my voice and a lot of other people who have done IVR (interactive voice response), and taking it and using it in different places without paying for the talent,” she says. “I think there will be a lot more. And especially with the abilities that they have right now, there are so many ways that they can manipulate the sound of your voice, and so you might not know. if that’s your voice. It’s a scary time for independent talent. “

Since Siri’s days, Bennett has done more voiceover work and launched a career in public speaking. In fact, she says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is the person who inspired her to host speaker events in 2013, after making an appearance at an event where he was also speaking.

“He called me up on stage to say a few things about Siri, and then he said, ‘You look really comfortable on stage, you should really try to do that’,” said -she.

Even though becoming Siri’s voice was totally unforeseen and unexpected, Bennett says she’s grateful for the doors she opened.

“I was lucky that Siri found me a whole new career, and that is hosting speaker events,” she says. “It was a good thing to be able to embark on a whole different career. So I’m very, very grateful to old Siri.”

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About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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