New Tech Helps Hard-Of-Hearing People Listen With Their Eyes

A conversation in a crowded room can be difficult to follow. When speakers interrupt each other and sentences overlap, when the dialogue bounces back and forth between multiple voices, it’s hard to keep up with what’s being said. Now imagine being deaf or hard-of-hearing, without even the benefit of sound to help you parse who’s saying what. That unpleasant scenario is a reality for the 5% of the global population that has “disabling hearing loss,” as calculated by the World Health Organization. Luckily for these 360 million people, a new mobile app called Ava aims to change that.

Ava’s function is simple enough. Whenever a deaf or hard-of-hearing person encounters a situation in which it might be difficult to read lips to keep up with a fast-paced conversation, participants can just open up the app on their phones. As the conversation progresses, Ava will pick up the audio of what speakers are saying and immediately translate it into scrolling text on the phone’s screen. It is basically a real-time captioning service – one that can be utilized in a cramped conference room, a dimly-lit bar, a crowded party, or anywhere else where tongues are wagging faster than anyone’s eyes can keep up with.

For hard-of-hearing people, Ava is a revolution in the way they interact with the hearing world. Hearing aids have existed in some form since the 1600s, when Ludwig van Beethoven was an enthusiastic user of “ear trumpets” that gathered sound in a large bell and redirected it, amplified, into a narrow opening inserted into the ear. Batteries and transistors have since modernized hearing aids, but a hearing person would be surprised just how far that technology still has to go.

Ava’s blog features two recordings in juxtaposition: one of a person hearing speech normally, and one recreation of what that same speech sounds like to a hard-of-hearing person using a hearing aid. The second recording sounds garbled and barely discernable as language, and would be hard enough to understand in a focused environment. In noisier circumstances, it would be a nightmare. Though hearing aids are preferable to navigating the world unassisted, they’re not a cure-all.

What Ava aims to do is make conversations more accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people by both isolating individual patterns of speech, and reintroducing the visual component of speaking that is lost when someone struggles to read multiple speakers’ lips and facial expressions at once. Rather than struggling to keep up with the visual components of an auditory medium, deaf or hard-of-hearing Ava users can instead have all spoken language converted into a real-time transcript. Although a similar video-captioning service is currently provided by government agencies, it can cost around $120/hour for private services, making it unfeasible for everyday situations. As Ava says in their company manifesto, this creates a “gilded cage for the deaf,” making it difficult to enjoy normal social experiences. Ava hopes that their technology can provide at least a step towards correcting this injustice.

Right now, Ava is still in the beta phase, with a test group of 3000+ users worldwide. They are continuing to accept interested users during the testing phase, and the sign-up process can be completed through their website. It works on both Android and iOS phones and should also work on newer tablets, although the interface isn’t yet optimized for use on devices other than smartphones. The technology does require an Internet connection to function, but works as well over a stable WiFi connection as it does using mobile data.

Ava still has a journey ahead to establish themselves as a truly helpful resource for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, but they’re dreaming big. As their website says, they “believe a totally accessible world is possible” – and they’re working hard to make it happen.

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