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Business & Entrepreneurship - Science & Technology

The Drexel Students Who Can Fix Your Fear of Public Speaking

By: Ben Seal

April 17, 2017

The Orai public speaking app

When Danish Dhamani and Paritosh Gupta came to Drexel University four years ago, they were at a loss for words. English was a second (or third) language for them both, and public speaking — in class, at job interviews, even in one-on-one conversation — was an impenetrable obstacle. Dhamani, who grew up in Tanzania speaking Urdu and Swahili, limited himself to a sentence or two when he spoke, holding in his ideas because he was so often misunderstood.

So the pair, who met as roommates, struck upon a solution. If people uncomfortable with public speaking had a tool to guide their practice in a safe space, they could improve, bit by bit, and shake their fears. Orai, an iPhone app Dhamani and Gupta developed that uses artificial intelligence to train users to become effective communicators, is that tool.

“You’re not born a public speaker, but you can become one through practice,” said Dhamani, mechanical engineering ’17. “It’s like going to the gym. You can’t just go to the gym two times and say, ‘I’m going to get biceps.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Orai serves as a gym of sorts for anyone looking to exercise their communication skills. It records and transcribes speech, analyzes it in mere seconds and delivers feedback focused on three areas: filler words, pace and energy.

The creators released the app for free last month and it’s already been met with a warm reception. Orai, which is housed in Drexel’s Baiada Institute for Entrepreneurship, has been recognized with several honors at business and startup competitions in which Gupta and Dhamani have won $40,000.

This week they’re in Seattle as one of 12 finalist teams in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, an event with a history of Drexel success. In addition to the Imagine Cup, which puts the team on their biggest stage yet, they are one of four finalists for the $75,000 prize in the Conscious Capitalism Student Business Plan Competition taking place this week right here in Philadelphia.

“I want Orai to give people a voice,” said Gupta, computer science ’18, who grew up speaking Hindi in India. “I want to help them speak what they want with confidence.”

When he was trying to improve his own comfort with public speaking, Dhamani went to Toastmasters, an organization focused on developing more effective communicators. The tricks he learned there are the same ones at play in Orai. The product’s genesis was at the PennApps hackathon in the fall of 2015, where Dhamani and Gupta created a virtual reality app that placed users in an auditorium setting and gave feedback on filler words and the speaker’s gaze. In its current form, Orai functions as a personal trainer, bringing Toastmasters to your phone.

To build Orai, the pair read research papers on computational linguistics, spoke with hundreds of speech coaches, executive coaches and sales trainers, and learned exactly how people perceive the difference between good and bad speech. It took more than six months for the two to become “domain experts” in public speaking before they could build Orai, Dhamani said.

Gupta primarily handles the product’s development and execution, building the artificial intelligence and creating the algorithms that serve as its foundation. Dhamani largely deals with business development and marketing, with a bit of design mixed in. They both wear many hats.

The app’s early success isn’t all that surprising to its creators. It fits a need and it does so in a way that opens it up to anyone who needs help.

 “The problem we are solving — speaking — everyone knows about it. Public speaking is one of the top fears in the world,” said Dhamani. “And the solution we have is simple to use.”

At the moment, Gupta and Dhamani are working on ways to monetize the app and build it into something bigger and better. The ultimate vision, Dhamani said, is to make an artificial intelligence that can watch a speaker and offer “human-like feedback” based on not just their speech, but also their mannerisms, body language and facial tics. They already have a prototype that measures points on a user’s face and quantifies them, and Dhamani suggested a finished version could be ready within six months. Orai’s impact could be even more significant in the near future.

“Extrapolating new technology to help improve human lives has always been my calling,” said Gupta, “and Orai just fit right into that.”

The app hasn’t been around long, but it’s already made a difference in the lives of its creators.

“I am a product of my product. I have seen myself significantly improve,” said Dhamani, speaking with no filler words, at just the right pace and with dynamic intonation. “I couldn’t have done this before, and now I can go in front of any type of audience and speak my heart out.”