Community Spotlight: Paul Watson from - HCS Voicepacks

Paul Watson
HCS Voicepacks 

Paul Watson from HCS voicepacks tell us about his love for the Elite Dangerous community (and how they've been invaluable) and explains what voice attack is, and how HCS voicepacks work hand in hand with the voice control technology.

1 – What are HCS voicepacks?

An HCS Voice Pack is a massive collection of pre-recorded vocal responses by a chosen actor. Each response is designed to realistically react in real time to your given vocal command, using a microphone. This creates a very convincing illusion of being accompanied by a virtual assistant.  For instance, you speak into your microphone the command, “Take off”, and the response by the virtual assistant would be, “Yes commander, ascending to 30 metres, handing you the controls”.  Not only does the the virtual assistant respond vocally, it will also carry out the manoeuvre for you.  Some of the virtual assistants contain additional responses, factual and educational material about our galaxy and the constellations, quantum theory and more. 

What gave you the idea to do packs for Elite Dangerous?

The packs, the sets of pre-recorded files themselves are dependent on software called Voice Attack. I saw Voice Attack back in 2014 and saw it being used in games just for key presses. After more research and Googling I saw the text to speech responses being used here and there – nothing major, just confirmation phrases, boring stuff. I quickly downloaded a demo, and started playing around with it – My partner is less able than most and has difficulty using a mouse and keyboard, so I tried to set it up with The Sims for her… and failed, so I put it down.  A little later I saw Elite: Dangerous and entered the Beta stage, set up a profile to use with Voice Attack and started showing it off on YouTube –  I built a larger profile with all the responses required to fly the ship and do the other stuff – then shared that to 100 users in the Elite: Dangerous community. Then got in touch with Gary from Voice Attack and opened dialogue for the first time in June 2014 with him. Explained to him that I had a plan :).  Since then, Gary has developed most of what Voice Attack does today around the work I’ve done with the packs themselves and feedback from the people using them.  

3 – You’ve had a lot of support from our community, can you give us some examples?

The community have been invaluable.  After all they are the people using these packs, and since the very beginning, the early adopters were offered the chance to suggest more responses for each command so that I could give them a more varied set of them, instead of just one single response – They quickly responded with many of these – I then compiled them, the additional educational stuff and then gave it back to them. The extra stuff from the community and the educational additions gave the pack real value; It was the community that wholly suggested  “This has some real worth” and things like “I’d pay for something like this if it was Norman Lovett”. So… it became a saleable commodity in its own right very quickly from that point. Organically it started to grow, and with that, along came more requests for more and more SciFi legends.  

4 – How has it been working with the ED community? Has it been a rewarding experience?

I’ve learned a great deal from the community in terms of what they want from the packs, and tried my very best to work with them, and deliver exactly what they ask for.  And so far, all the packs have been very well received by the community – we’re fortunate to have a collective of wonderful people in the community. And I am absolutely blown away by the massive amount of kind emails – People saying extraordinary things about how much it has changed their experience whilst gaming… Others explaining that they can’t play the game without the packs, loads of others. It is very rewarding, and I sometimes have to take a breath just to take it all in, I adore it when I know people are really enjoying using a virtual assistant. Many people tell me that they feel like they are real. I always think about the ramifications of that, should somebody end up emotionally attached to their virtual assistant ;). 

5 – Which voicepack are you particularly fond of?

I use most of them - Although Jazz is the pack I use for most. I find Jazz the most believable, I’m not sure why but Jazz seems to have all the bases covered for me. I think it maybe down to how I first imagined how a ship’s virtual assistant should sound like. Jazz certainly fits the ship very well.  But she is complimented by Midnight and also Minus… I don’t know, I love them all.

6 - It must have been a lot of fun but hard work to put these packs together? Can you talk us through the process?

It starts with a bunch of comments from the community – They name drop Tom Baker, Brian Blessed and all those names they want as a virtual assistant.  I sit and think about casting carefully.  Then I wait. And then one day, I wake up, decide who I’m going to try and cast, and just get on with it quickly – booking studios and all that stuff.  The main script is identical for most stuff in the packs, the commands and so on, so that bit is simple.  The additional flavoured stuff and naming the characters is pretty challenging sometimes – For actors to be able to perform believable lines, they have to have belief in the character… So I find writing up background stuff very hard indeed.  Once all that’s done and out of the studio, the post production is just lots of tiresome file renaming and Voice Attack profile work, which of course I have helpers for.  It is a very mundane part of the job, but the people I have helping with that are brilliant!  And testing the profiles once done is very rewarding – that’s the moment when you see all the work getting it done coming to fruition – A whole new virtual assistant is born!

7 – What made you decide to work with Elite specifically? Are you a fan of Elite Dangerous – do you get much chance to play yourself? If so, what kind of player are you?

I don’t think I would have paid much attention to Elite had my school friend not shown me the game all those years ago.  A dear friend of mine, he had the original Elite.  I used to watch him play it, yes just watch! On a dining chair he’d place next to him at his computer – he’d say, “right! Sit there, don’t touch anything! Just watch this” – So I’d sit and watch, I was about 11 or 12 – And that’s all it was, something I watched, occasionally he’s let me have a go – albeit minutes before his flapping hands would usher me away from the keyboard.  That was many decades ago, I knew as soon as I saw Elite: Dangerous available I just had to get it.  I just wish that my friend was here to share in the wonder of it all today.  Sadly he died 4 years ago, I miss him immensely.  But he’s always at the back of my mind, and with me each time I play the game, or I’m in the studio, or writing stuff.  He’d have loved all this.

I only play in the Rift – I love it.  And I usually always play solo, and mix up what I do – that’s the real beauty of it – you can do whatever you wish.  I’ve got about 3-4 ships, favourite is the Asp and around 50 million credits too, so I’ve put a fair amount of player time in – fitting it in with the pack work is painful – I get very disappointed that I don’t have the energy to play sometimes, especially around the times we have to update them all.  But I am looking forward to an entire day sometime soon, where I can sit and do nothing else but explore and stuff.

See more about HCS packs on the website.

9 – Is there anything else you want to tell the ED community about?

Just about how grateful and blessed I feel to be part of the community.  It’s magic!

10 – What’s next for voicepacks?

Buzz Aldrin if I can get him, not for an entire pack, just 20 lines that will work in conjunction with the rest of the packs ;).  I’d like that personally, I’m sure others would too.  On a serious note, I’d like to see them much further forward than they are right now – at the moment they do have limitations, so when we make the profiles we have to do an awful lot extra to make them work outside of games – Perhaps with new technology and some creative coding…. Well.