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'Life with subtitles'

October 9, 2011

Two Munich-based social entrepreneurs have developed a new smartphone transcription service that allows people with hearing impairments to communicate without relying on sign language or live interpreters.

Two men using sign language
VerbaVoice is an accessible alternative to sign languageImage: AP

The motto for Michaela and Robin Nachtrab's company could very well be 'life with subtitles.' Using technology they have developed over the past three years, the couple hopes to give the more than 300,000 hearing impaired and deaf people living in Germany the ability to communicate in an everyday environment – without sign language and without interpreters.

Man with doctor
The system is useful for doctor's appointmentsImage: VerbaVoice/Winkler

"When I was 19, I did a social work year and my heart went out to deaf and hard-of-hearing people," Michaela said. "I saw that more needs to be done to integrate these people into our society and I wanted to do something against these barriers."

Michaela then spent eight years helping unemployed people with hearing find jobs.

"I saw that there are many problems, especially getting the right interpreter for the hearing impaired on the right day, at the right moment and at the right place," she said. "So finally, I went home to my husband and told him about the problem. He said 'how about doing it via the internet?' And that was it."

Finding a solution

The technology Michaela and Robin eventually developed uses smartphones to help people with hearing impairments communicate with others who don't understand sign language.

At the doctor's office or in a class, for example, the user can simply press a button and the voice of the speaker will be transmitted to a central location where a transcriber "re-voices" the content word by word for a speech recognition program that is trained specifically for his or her voice. The software then transcribes the words spoken into written form and transmits them back to the smartphone for the user to read.

"I would say that we are trying to create, model-wise, something like Google for transcription," Robin said. While the idea came to the couple easily, putting it into action took months of work and research and money they didn't have.

"We needed to get software developers and equipment, which were both very expensive. And it's quite hard to find people willing to give you venture capital as a social business because you won't reach the same profit that other people can reach with their (conventional) businesses," said Michaela.

Hand with smartphone
VerbaVoice users receive a transcription of what is being said on their smartphonesImage: VerbaVoice/Winkler

Discovering social financing

That is when Michaela turned to social venture funds – banks that lend social entrepreneurs money, much like regular venture capitalists. While the money is a loan that attracts interest charges, social investors also take a project's social impact into account when they assess its profitability.

Michaela's company, VerbaVoice, recently received a 700,000 euro loan. In addition, Michaela will join four other social business founders as the newest German fellows at Ashoka – a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance and consulting services to social entrepreneurs.

"We have already served many hearing impaired people, but our hope in the next year is to provide at least 27,000 hours of service. This kind of funding is the only way we can do it," she said.

"On the one hand, we have the social venture fund. They invest in social businesses and they provide infrastructure as well. And on the other hand we have Bayern Kapital (a venture capital subsidiary of the Bavarian development bank). They are very interested in our technical development. This combination is perfect for us."

Development for the future

Screenshot of VerbaVoice website
Some 300,000 people are hearing impaired or deaf in Germany alone

While VerbaVoice is already being used by dozens of people with hearing impairments, the system is still in development. A user has to give some advance notice before using the software in order to have the transcriber ready, but Michaela and Robin hope to further develop the use of synthetic voice technology in the near future so a live transcriber will no longer be necessary.

"The idea is that if you speak to a person more often, we can create what is called a speech profile with an integrated language model," said Robin. "Then we would not need a reporter in between. The software would recognize the voice of someone who speaks into the system regularly, and it would be able to start transcribing automatically."

While the technology is mainly used for the doctor's office and classrooms for now, the Nachtrabs hope to make it instantaneous and usable anywhere in the near future. VerbaVoice is currently free for users in Germany thanks to social capital loans and corporate sponsors, but Michaela and Robin aim to reduce its operating costs to a low level that users would be able to finance themselves in future.

"The best outcome would be that the hearing impaired are really independent and flexible," said Michaela. "They would have their mobile phone with them and be able talk to everybody in the world in every language."

As far as the return on investment is concerned, Michaela said VerbaVoice is paying society back in ways that can hardly be measured in monetary terms.

"Someone told me 'it's the first time I feel as if I'm a hearing person. Nobody can see that I'm deaf and I can use it like a mobile phone. I just look at my mobile and I'm like a hearing person,'" she said. "And that's is a great feeling."

Author: Jenny Hoff (nh)
Editor: Sam Edmonds