Balqis Lim finds out why the Live Transcribe app is a godsend to the deaf and hard of hearing community
The moment you open the mobile app, it starts writing out what it hears in large, easy-to-read text. It not only works remarkably well but it also successfully adds punctuation.
This Live Transcribe accessibility app is created by Google specifically for members of the deaf and hard of hearing community.
In our thirst for information, it isn’t surprising to find that some of the world’s underserved communities do not have the same access the way we do.
Since making the world’s information universally accessible as part of its mission, Google is constantly looking for ways to better serve these communities.
Live Transcribe was unveiled earlier this year to allow people to communicate in situations where they might not otherwise be able to.
A lot of the conversations that we have nowadays are on stuff that happens around us in real life in-person conversations.
But if you’re deaf or hard of hearing, then you just miss out on those interactions.
The only way to communicate with somebody else is either through sign language or hire a professional interpreter.
Currently, the World Health Organisation estimates that there are 466 million people with this kind of disability. If it is a country, it would be the third largest “country” behind China and India.
And it’s almost 15 times the population of Malaysia. The worrisome part is that this “population” is increasing.
As people’s lifespans increase, this community is expected to grow to almost a billion by 2055.
“This means that we need to ensure we can accommodate them and make great products for them,” says Google AI senior product manager Sagar Savla.
Like its namesake, this mobile app uses a phone’s microphone to automatically transcribe real-time speech into captions.
The app is available in over 70 languages and dialects. It enables two-way conversation via a type-back keyboard for users who can’t or don’t want to speak, and can switch between two languages at a time.
“We also support dialects of certain popular languages like English and Spanish. The reason we ship with this special feature of supporting multiple languages at the same time is because there are more multilingual households in the world than monolingual.
“Even in Malaysia it is very common for people to switch between Malay and English in the same conversation, especially when they know both languages,” he says.
There is a blue circle indicator that detects the loudness and noise volume level of the speaker’s voice relative to the noise of the environment on the right corner of the app.
Another aspect is sound events. Live Transcribe can detect sounds like clapping, knocking, dog barking and much more in the user’s surrounding.
Savla shares a user story where a deaf woman was alerted by the app to her baby crying.
When her baby was not in the room, she then followed the crying sound according to the blue circle indicator only to find that her baby had locked herself inside the shoe closet.
Google has also added a water sound detection feature. Apparently, some deaf people are scared about leaving the tap on when they go to the bathroom because they cannot hear the sound and often forget to close the tap.
“And so instead of becoming paranoid and constantly checking their bathroom tap, they can use the app. This has helped avoid high water bills or flooding in many cases.”
Another feature is the ability to save the transcription such as one-on-one conversations and meetings among small groups. It allows the user to save the transcript for up to three days. If there is a need to keep the transcripts longer than that, the user can just copy and paste them to other platforms.
POWER OF AI
Savla says existing professional hearing aid is exorbitant, costing between US$1,000 and US$5,000.
“As somebody who grew up in India, I can see how debilitating that can be for somebody’s lifestyle. Most people cannot afford that.”
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“We decided to use AI to solve this since everybody has a phone, which can also be used as a hearing aid.”
The app is smart enough to recognise the context behind certain words. During a demonstration, it understood the difference between New Jersey, the place, versus new jersey as in new clothing that you’re going to buy.
“When you say stuff like, I would like to have a table for two at 2pm, it understands the difference between the first two which means two people versus the second two, which is the time and transcribes it correctly.”
Savla says the app is developed from Google’s cloud-based speech recognition model.
It is the result of a decade-long research gathered from other products such as Google Voice Search and Google Assistant to help people recognise speech across different languages.
The transcribing process, Savla says, happens within 200 milliseconds — from the audio to the system, and through the user’s phone to Google’s cloud servers, and back to the phone.
He says this is important to ensure the user gets the caption or text back in an instant for them to be able to participate in the conversation instead of becoming passive listeners.
Google also partnered with the world’s premier university for the deaf and hard of hearing, Gallaudet University in Washington, US, which is also the inventor of the American Sign Language.
The university provided feedback on Live Transcribe so that it meet the needs of these communities.
In terms of education, Savla sees the app as revolutionary.
“If you’re hard of hearing or deaf, you don’t have to go to a special school anymore. You can continue in the same year in school or a university and follow along and get conversations without having to learn or teach somebody else sign language.”
The Live Transcribe app is available for free in the Google Play Store.
The company hasn’t ruled out creating the app for iOS. It is open to working with Apple for the iOS version or the iPhone.
When it comes to background noise, Savla says Google is currently working towards making the app more understanding of the context of noise and make it more robust to these kinds of scenarios.
The next thing is to do is improve its speech recognition quality.
“English is what we started with and is one of our best speech recognition systems. We want to continue to improve English as well as all the other languages that we support, including Malay.