People with hearing loss soon will have a new option for viewing captions in movie theaters, classrooms, sports venues, or museums—anywhere visual or multilingual access may be needed.
A wearable, wireless captioning system for consumers is being developed by Leanne West, director of the Landmarc Research Center at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). "We're trying to make captioning affordable and easy with off-the-shelf technology that can be used in multiple venues," said West, who is bringing the system to market this year.
The system is the product of West's lunchtime conversation 10 years ago with colleagues who mentioned lawsuits that had been filed against movie chains by patrons with hearing loss
who sought access to these public facilities. "We thought there had to be an optical solution to
providing captioning," West said.
With a passion for problem-solving and a background in optical and electrical engineering, West developed a prototype now in use at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., where users can view captions related to various exhibits. The system debuted publicly at the Jan. 3 Dallas Cowboys home football game as a part of the Durateq ALICE Live System. Using standard wireless technology already available at many public facilities, the venue's transmitter sends the captions to a consumer's wireless-enabled personal digital assistant (PDA), smartphone, or laptop. Also being developed is eyewear that provides captioning, similar to that being used to watch movies on a personal DVD player; the eyewear is being customized for use at public venues.
The 802.11b Wi-Fi protocol used to deliver the captions is already installed in many facilities, including sports arenas, coffee shops, restaurants, and urban business districts. Consumers will be able to view captions by downloading an inexpensive software application under development. The venue provides pre-recorded captions or computer-assisted real-time translation (CART) captions generated by a court reporter. As voice-recognition software improves, this technology also could produce captions, West said.
Before developing the device, West conducted a needs-assessment survey through the Georgia Council for the Hearing Impaired; she then tested a prototype of the device at a Hearing Loss Association of America conference, at which 63 volunteers, ranging in age from 15 to 75, provided valuable feedback. "People seemed interested in and excited about what we were doing," West said.
Users wanted to be able to adjust the size and color of the captioning and the background color, feedback that was incorporated into the design.
GTRI and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, a unit of the U.S. Department of Education, provided funding to develop the captioning technology. In 2009 West and fellow GTRI research scientist Ethan Adler started a company, Intelligent Access, to bring this product to market.
"Our system works not only in a movie theater, but also at any other venue where captioning is needed, such as colleges and universities," West said.
In the classroom, students can view captions on a PDA or laptop without having to sit near a CART provider or a projection screen to see the captions. The system also will work with remote captioning, although an onsite CART provider who is familiar with specific terminology may provide higher-quality captions, West noted.
At large sports arenas or entertainment venues, wireless captioning eliminates the need for patrons to sit in front of a projection screen or near an interpreter. The technology also can simultaneously transmit captioning or subtitles in multiple languages, so one patron could read English captions while another reads Spanish. Patrons can bring their own devices or the stadium can loan out custom hardware.
"With this system, I hope we're offering people an easy way to give captions to their patrons," West said, "and perhaps more venues will be encouraged to do it."