Anyone with any sort of hearing loss will be well versed in the problems of trying to follow a conversation that’s not a one-to-one, never mind being able to actively contribute to it.
The problem is, of course, made far worse as soon as there’s any added background noise, for example in a restaurant. Or if you’re walking in a group, trying to eat at the same time, or travelling in a car. For the deaf person, it can be isolating, exhausting and deeply frustrating. It may lead to some people avoiding certain group situations altogether.
Dutch start-up SpeakSee has come up with a solution to this all-too-common problem. And the company is coming to the UK to trial a new system aimed at overcoming the issues for Deaf and hard of hearing people in group conversations of up to 10 participants.
Its idea is aimed at all kinds of encounters, from work meetings to social situations and any other gathering of more than two people, although it can also be used for one-to-one conversations as a standalone mic.
With two proposed solutions, the company has a prototype for both, and is keen to find out which one is likely to be more helpful. So it’s inviting Brits to sign up for a trial when it visits the UK soon.
One idea is to use speech-to-text functionality, the other streams speech to a hearing aid or implant. Using a combination of both solutions is a third option.
When the deaf or hard of hearing person hasn’t caught something, they can glance at the text, see what they’ve missed, and be re-included in the conversation.
The Rotterdam-based enterprise is keen to talk to people over here, and see which solution they prefer.
The basic speech-to-text idea is simple. Microphones the size of a USB stick are handed round to up to 10 people taking part in the conversation. The system captures voices after a microphone is clipped to the speaker’s shirt, before transcribing the spoken words into text in less than a second.
The deaf person can then read who said what thanks to the colour-coded transcript as it appears on their mobile phone thanks to the SpeakSee app.
For those who prefer to use what hearing they have, a different option is to use hearing aids or implants, which the SpeakSee microphones can connect with.
Because the microphones are placed near the mouth, and make use of background noise- cancelling technology, SpeakSee says speech clarity is greatly enhanced. And the system is compatible with nearly all hearing aids, as well as all implants using Telecoil mode.
After a conversation, the microphones are just placed in a dock where they can be charged up.
SpeakSee’s Jari Hazelebach, who is hearing and brought up orally having been born to two profoundly deaf parents, runs the business with a team. He says: “For severe deaf people, obviously, formal or informal group situations are just about impossible to follow. I’ve seen this with my own father, for example, a technical engineer, who can’t follow work meetings. He has to find out what was discussed afterwards.
“Similarly, for those who are severely hard of hearing, say with a loss of more than 60dB, even with hearing aids, group conversations involving more than three people can be incredibly difficult.
“There are other products on the market, such as microphones that can be put on the table, but they are often expensive, don’t provide optimal clarity of speech due to the distance from the mouth, or may not work so well in background noise or when the person moves too far away. We think we have hit on something different because you can start the conversation right away after distributing the mics – there’s no set-up time or effort involved. We really think we can help overcome the barriers many deaf or hard of hearing people face when it comes to group situations.”
Users in Hazelebach’s native Holland have already expressed enthusiasm for the ‘compact, simple and Apple-like’ design of the solution, and indicated that they would use it. One interesting piece of feedback was that speed of speech-to-text feedback was more important than complete accuracy.
Hazelebach and his team are planning to premiere and launch the product in the UK. They are travelling to London, and are keen to meet British deaf and hard of hearing people to try out their product, which they think they will offer here with a far lower price tag than alternative microphone solutions. The business will select 30 Brits to trial the solution at the end of September.
He says: “Our approach to innovation means we’re really keen to involve the Deaf community as much as we can, and to receive (and act on) input from as many potential users as possible.”
Interested in taking part or want to know more? Look at the website: www.speak-see.com and leave your email address.
By Juliet England
The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.
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