“Sometimes I say ‘comma’ when I’m talking to my friends.” The day Charlie met Ai-Media’s live captioners

Posted on May 22, 2015

Ai-Media have been one of this site’s longest-serving supporters, and on Wednesday, intrigued by how live captions are provided, I visited their team to meet them and find out how it all works.

The company are based in a light, airy building only a few minutes from London’s Waterloo station. Soon after I arrived, they were showing me around, explaining how the company was originally set up in Australia by Tony Abrahams, the CEO and a deaf actor called Alex Jones.

Their Australian operation has been established for a decade and employs over 180 people, providing subtitles for numerous TV channels as well as services like live captioning for situations like meetings, job interviews, lectures or live events.

Now they have a UK team, which is smaller, but growing fast, and can offer live captioning remotely with as little as 15 minutes notice.

What really fascinated me was meeting two of the company’s live captioners, Martin and Max. In their spare time, both are writers who have written books, and think that their backgrounds (Martin studied linguistics and Max studied English) help with their work.

Max, Martin, Charlie and Sarah at the Ai-Media offices

Max, Martin, Charlie and Sarah at the Ai-Media offices

What they do, as live captioners, is listen to what is being said and then repeat it very clearly into a microphone, with their words appearing on the screen thanks to voice recognition software.

A deaf person can be in a meeting and, as everyone is talking, see the words they’re saying appear on a screen in front of them. One way of describing it is that it’s like adding subtitles to real-life situations.

For a situation like a meeting lasting longer than half an hour, the live captioners work in pairs, with one of them voicing what is being said and the other spotting any mistakes and correcting them. Every 15 minutes, they swap over to give their voices a rest. Afterwards, a transcript of the whole meeting – recording everything that has been said – can be easily provided.

To receive live captioning, the team told me that a deaf person doesn’t need to download an app or any software, they just need to go to the company’s website, log in, and then get started. The service can be funded by Access to Work or Disabled Students Allowance, or paid for privately.

Before and after the captioning begins, they can either speak directly to the captioner through a microphone or use a live chat box to type to them. Martin told me: “One of the best things is the personal connection with the client – because we speak or type to them individually, we know it’s helping them.”

Martin delivering live captions

Martin delivering live captions

Eileen Hopkins, the Executive Director, told me that only one in three people are suitable for the job: “Captioners are so skilled, and not everyone can do it.” Martin explained that being a live captioner means listening in a very specific and focused way: “I’m always thinking about sentence structure, not what someone is saying.”

I noticed that when they speak into the microphone, they do so in a very clear monotone voice, which makes it easier for the voice recognition software to understand what they’re saying. They also have to say ‘comma’ or ‘full stop’ to add punctuation.

Max speaking into the micr

Max speaking into the microphone

I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was easy to stop this way of talking once work was over. Max said: “Sometimes I say ‘comma’ when I’m talking to my friends.” Martin also admitted with a grin that sometimes, when he hears someone speaking, he automatically starts thinking about how he would voice what they are saying.

The team’s trainer, Sarah, told me about the care the team have to take over their voices, including doing vocal warm ups, and drinking lots of water.

Eileen’s background is working with Autism charities and she explained that the services the company offer go further than just offering live captioning. Ai-Media’s service originated in supporting deaf people and continues to do so, but now also offers services for children with other special needs – which have been independently evaluated by the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

One of these is called Simple Text, which breaks down metaphors or complex ideas so that they can be understood by children with autism or auditory processing disorder.

The company is also developing a service called Speech to Symbols, which uses icons to help express elements of speech. Plus they have piloted a Teacher CPD (Continuous Professional Development) tool called Visible Classroom in UK schools.

By the time I left, I realised that I’ve been in a lot of situations – training sessions, meetings and interviews for example – where I could have used live captioning, and I’m hoping to give it a try before long.

It was also great – in a world where we communicate so often online – to meet the team face to face and see how passionate they are about the work they do.

Find out more about Ai-Media’s live captioning by going to their website or contacting them directly by email: enquiries@ai-media.tv

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist, director and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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