By Federico Guerrini
I just had a Skype chat with entrepreneur Olivier Jeannel about his new product. It was a text chat, as Olivier – just like roughly 70 million people in the world (of which approximately 26 million of Americans) – suffers from profound hearing loss. If he has his way, soon this is no longer going to be a problem. Together with his associate Sidney Burks and product manager Pablo Seuc-Rocher, he’s working on the launch of RogerVoice, an Android app that has been designed from the ground up for those who cannot hear on the phone.
With RogerVoice, the deaf or hard-of-hearing person starts a call and receives on his smartphone instant live transcriptions of what the other speaker is saying, regardless if he is speaking in English or another of the many other languages recognized by the system (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Greek and Japanese top the list).
While the idea, generally speaking, is brilliant, there are still some hurdles to overcome. Automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology is still far from flawless; also, unlike other softwares (Dragon and friends) that can be trained to recognize a single voice, improving this way the recognition rate, RogerVoice has to work with any kind of voice, so don’t imagine you can have a long, complex conversation without any trouble.
“You might use it to confirm an appointment with a doctor – Olivier says – or tell a plumber to come”. Basic stuff, but enough to significantly improve the quality of life of a deaf person, allowing he or she to rely less on other people’s intervention. It’s also up to the hearing person to make a better effort to enunciate, to help the voice recognition software’s performance. So you could in fact have a long and articulate conversation, provided that the counterpart is a relative, a friend, or someone that’s kind enough not to speak in a rush.
I asked Jeannel if – when the problem is not too severe – an hearing aid wouldn’t work as well, and the answer was quite interesting, because it pointed to the social implications of suffering from hearing loss.
“The interesting fact is – he says – that most deaf people don’t wear hearing aids, only 1 in 5 apparently bother to get equipped. This is because wearing hearing aids is often associated to a kind of social stigma. Also, of the profoundly deaf population, most manage to speak, but understanding a conversation without visual cues is difficult, if not impossible. In my case, impossible without lip-reading. More and more profoundly deaf use cochlear implants, which is a revolution: it helps a lot to understand speech, but it’s still quite difficult over a phone”.
The app is designed to be Bluetooth compatible, meaning that the RogerVoice app could connect directly to a Bluetooth-equipped hearing aid for a better listening experience and, after the launch of the Android version, the team will start working on the iOS and Windows ones.
The business model will be based on subscriptions, with one year of unlimited calls priced at $59 for those that will contribute to the Kickstarter campaign that’s currently running to support the product’s development. As for the time to market, if the $20,000 is reached on Kickstarter, founder hope to release the product by the end of the year. “Hopefully for Christmas – Jeannel says”.