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Unread 06-13-2011, 07:31 PM   #1 (permalink)
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App Watch: Captioning Your Phone Calls

App Watch: Hamilton Mobile CapTel - Digits - WSJ

Losing your hearing doesn’t mean you have to stop using your cellphone.

A free smartphone app that provides captioning for phone conversations debuted in the Android Market late last month. Called Hamilton Mobile CapTel, the app also is available on iPhones and BlackBerry devices and comes from Nebraska’s Hamilton Relay, a provider of traditional relay services for the deaf and hard of hearing since 1991.

The app works like this: The user dials a number via the app’s touchscreen display. A captioning service is looped in—a process that takes several seconds—and the app then calls the original user’s device. Upon answering the call, the user is connected to the other party, and the app then captures the text of the conversation. To work, the device must be on a network that offers simultaneous voice and data access.

The idea itself is not revolutionary; caption calls have long been available. In fact, Hamilton Relay’s signature product, the CapTel 800i, is a traditional desktop phone, with a built-in caption screen. Yet the app is representative of an important trend–a growing ecosystem of smartphone technology aimed at easing traditional barriers of communication for the deaf and hearing impaired.

Given Hamilton Relay’s customer base, the eventual development of a smartphone app was a no-brainer, said Hamilton Relay vice president Dixie Ziegler. Thirty six million Americans experience some degree of hearing loss. Of that number, the majority first encounter problems with old age, Ziegler said. “So many have been able to use a telephone or mobile phone their whole life” but then face the prospect of having to give that up, she said.

The company’s bulky 800i was not going to cut it for those used to mobile phones. Hamilton Relay was encountering more customers who were familiar with mobile technology, so the company looked for an answer that married its established closed captioning service with a smartphone’s ease of use.

App development was done in house. While the team consulted developer forums—finding developer community support very helpful—it “didn’t need a tremendous amount of help,” said Ziegler. The app took 90 days to build.

The main challenge, said Ziegler, was making sure that Hamilton Relay’s technology integrated with the device’s contact list application—meaning that the experience of finding a number and then making a call through the app had to be as seamless as possible.

Ziegler says the company does not have a complete sense of how many new customers it has picked up from its app store listings. The largest set of app customers are those who were already using, or will soon start to use, Hamilton Relay’s telephones.

But it’s not a stretch to predict that the demand for similar apps will increase.

Last October, President Obama signed into law a video and telecommunications act encouraging the development of improved hearing aid compatibility for Internet phones and captioning of television programs.

Some businesses are taking initiative on their own. Already some movie theaters are installing digital closed-captioning systems that use handheld devices. On the app front, the deaf use the iPhone 4’s video functionality to sign to each other.

People with hearing problems, and particularly those having issues later in life, are getting vocal.

“With Grandmom—the older generation—if something didn’t work, no one thought about going to technology. You were just deaf.” said Lise Hamlin, director of policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America. “But this generation is really demanding answers and looking at technology.”
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