Voice to SMS to voice a boon for etiquette and the deaf

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2006 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Some assistive technologies for people with disabilities have to be especially developed for the situation but in other cases a standard technology can be used as an assistive technology. An obvious example of this is the rapid adoption of mobile phones by people with severe hearing impairment; the reason is that SMS and MMS are ideal ways for people within the community to communicate with each other as it is quick, accurate, mobile and fun.

The deaf community has used minicom systems for some years that provide a text capability on land lines but the technology was especially produced and therefore did not benefit from the styling and sophistication that can be built into mass market products. The other limitation is that it requires both ends to have compatible equipment. This meant it could not be used to communicate with people outside the deaf community unless they especially installed the relevant equipment, or they connected via an operator (a service provided jointly by BT and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf in the UK).

Two new technologies, that are designed to appeal to the mass market, are as a by-product, about to revolutionise the deaf-to-hearing communication. They are SMS-to-voice and voice-to-SMS.

Early this year BT announced a trial of SMS-to-voice. This means that SMS messages can now be sent to a land line number, the text is converted into a voice and left in the voice box or the phone is rung and the message read out. The attraction to the mass market is that people, especially kids, who use SMS as a standard communication medium can now communicate with their old fashioned parents and grandparents. There are also potential business benefits of being able to receive SMS at call centres. The message is built up from words spoken by ‘’the Doctor’ (actor Tom Baker) so it is mildly disconcerting that an SMS from my friend Sheila comes out as a deep sonorous male, but the important thing is that the message is clear and has reasonable intonation.

However, for people with hearing impairments it opens up a new channel of communication. For example they can send an SMS to a doctor’s surgery to arrange an appointment or ask for information. Or just leave a message for a hearing friend or relation who does not use a mobile.

Carphone Warehouse now offers the complimentary service of voice-to-SMS. Using technology from Spinvox, incoming voice messages are converted into text messages. I have been testing out this service for some weeks now and it is impressive. Spinvox specialise in voicemail and claims a user-rated accuracy of 97%. The good thing about the system is that it tells you when it is not sure so a message from my other friend Sharad came out as ‘This is a message from Sharad(?)…’ the question mark showing that it was not certain about this word, even though it had got it right. Similarly ‘shabat’ came out as ‘shapat(?)’ which probably says more about the speaker (me in this case) rather than the system. The message includes a message number and this can be used to listen to the original in case there is some confusion or you just want to listen to the speaker’s dulcet tones.

So what is the unique selling point of voice-to-text for people who can hear? Many people are in a situation where they can not listen to their phone; either because the environment is too noisy, or because social etiquette does not approve (in meetings, in classes as a student or even as a lecturer), or because a written version of the message is useful. These reasons mean that voice-to-text is a commercial proposition.

People with hearing impairments can piggy-back on the technology and gain a new channel of communication. Recently my wife ordered a book at our local bookshop and a few days later they called and left her a message to say the book had arrived. With this new technology they would not have to be aware if she was deaf or not, they could do what was most convenient—in this case leave a voice message—and my wife could pick it up as a voicemail or as an SMS if she preferred, or happened to be deaf.

These two mass market technologies provide useful functions to the masses and, at zero cost, provide new assistive technologies that can greatly improve the lives and inclusivity of people who are hard of hearing or profoundly deaf.

Organisations should look at these technologies to see how they could easily and with little expense improve the service they give to hearing impaired customers, clients and suppliers.