Portland, Ore. - For more than a quarter-billion of the world's people-including upward of 28 million in the United States-sporting events lack an announcer's commentary and modern multiplexes show only silent movies. But an alliance of private industry and academe in Georgia is promising help for the hearing-impaired and a chance to enjoy public events that depend on sound for communications.
To ease the problem wherever it's found-movie theaters, museums, schools, sports arenas, places of worship-Georgia Tech Research Institute developed wearable captioning electronics.
Now it's licensed that technology to Peacock Communications Inc. (Marietta, Ga.), which plans to offer the solution to public venues in a software system it calls COMMplements. The system taps into 802.11b wireless capabilities. Offered by more and more public venues to give mobile users easy Internet access, the wireless nodes will transmit text versions of the voices of actors, teachers, sports announcers and clergy. Initially, existing audio will be translated for transmission as text, but eventually all sorts of annotations-statistics during sports events, for example-could be possible.
Peacock plans to leverage the growing infrastructure of 802.11 wireless transceivers, already installed in places like stadiums, coffee shops, restaurants and even urban business districts. "Using our system, venues can add text annotations to be received by hearing-impaired patrons on the [patrons'] own personal digital assistants or on special venue-supplied heads-up displays that overlay the captions on, say, a movie," said Leanne West, Georgia Tech Research Institute project director.
At the beginning, Peacock Communications plans to market to U.S. venues, such as movie theaters, that already have American-language audio streams running. COMMplements can also translate the audio into multilingual text streams.
Peacock will also pursue markets in Canada and western Europe that want to offer multiple language translations. "Our wearable captioning system can work in any language. It can give the hard of hearing all over the world access to public information that improves their quality of life by increasing their community involvement," said West.
Today the only competing technology is seat-attached captioning systems in some movie theaters. Software called the Rear Window Captioning System, created by the National Center for Accessible Media, displays captions reversed on a light-emitting diode (LED) array at the back of the theater. People with hearing problems can flip up a transparent panel in their seat arm that reflects the captions, making them appear to be superimposed right-reading below the movie.
COMMplements goes further, permitting captions to be multilingual, private, discreet and customizable by the moviegoer. The captions can be viewed either with glasses supplied by the theater or on their own PDAs. "We believe that COMMplements is the easiest way for venues to generate their own captions, which can be customized," said West.
COMMplements is being tested with a variety of display devices, from PDAs to laptop computers to heads-up displays in glasses or worn on a headband. The heads-up displays overlay text on the scene, making it appear to be floating in the air in front of the viewer.
Most of the time the captions will be generated from prerecorded audio, but text annotations can also be generated in real-time using the standard shorthand typing method called Communication Access Real-Time Translation. The company is also working with speech-recognition vendors to incorporate their automatic speech-to-text capabilities in future versions of COMMplements.
Prototypes were tested by researchers at Georgia Tech Research Institute at the annual Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People conference (http://hearingloss.org/). The tests involved 63 volunteers at SHHH who were deaf or hard of hearing and ranged in age from 15 to 75.
The researchers said their tests, in a simulated movie theater, resulted in 84 percent of the volunteers reporting that they would not feel self-conscious using the wearable captioning system. After viewing movies from 15 to 90 minutes long, 65 percent of the participants reported getting used to the system in less than 10 minutes.