Why subtitles are suddenly everywhere and how they got there

NEW YORK (AP) – People with hearing loss have a new ally in their efforts to navigate the world: subtitles that aren’t limited to their television screens and streaming services.

The COVID pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of people everywhere, but many of those with hearing loss have suffered from the resulting isolation. “When everyone wears a mask, they are completely unintelligible to me,” said Pat Olken of Sharon, Massachusetts, whose hearing aids were insufficient. (A new cochlear implant helped her a lot.)

So when his grandson’s bar mitzvah was streamed on Zoom at the start of the pandemic, well before the service offered closed captioning, Olken turned to Otter, an app created to transcribe business meetings. Reading along with the ceremony’s speakers made the app “a tremendous resource,” she said.

People with hearing loss, an estimated group of about 40 million adults in the United States, have long embraced technologies to help them break through the world of hearing, from Victorian-era trumpets to modern digital hearing aids and cochlear implants.

But today’s hearing aids can cost upwards of $5,000, are often not covered by insurance, and don’t work for everyone. The devices also do not focus audible sound in the same way that glasses correct vision immediately. Instead, hearing aids and cochlear implants require the brain to interpret sound in a new way.

“Existing solutions are clearly not a one-size-fits-all model and don’t meet the needs of many people based on cost, access, many different things,” said Frank Lin, director of the Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. This is not just a communication problem; researchers have found correlations between untreated hearing loss and increased risk of dementia.

Cheaper over-the-counter hearing aids are on the way. But for now, only about 20% of those who could benefit from hearing aids use one.

Subtitles, on the other hand, are usually much easier to access. They have long been available on modern television sets and are appearing more frequently on video conferencing apps like Zoom, streaming services like Netflix, social media video on TikTok and YouTube, movie theaters and live arts venues.

In recent years, smartphone apps like Otter; Google Live Transcript; ava; InnoCaption, for phone calls; and GalaPro, for live theater performances, emerged. Some are aimed at people with hearing loss and use human reviewers to ensure the subtitles are accurate.

Others, like Otter and Live Transcribe, rely on what’s called automatic speech recognition, which uses artificial intelligence to learn and capture speech. ASR has problems with accuracy and delays in transcribing the spoken word; Built-in biases can also make transcripts less accurate for the voices of women, people of color and the deaf, said Christian Volger, a professor at Gallaudet University who specializes in accessible technology.

Jargon and slang can also be an obstacle. But users and experts say ASR has improved a lot.

While welcome, none of these solutions are perfect. Toni Iacolucci, from New York, says her book club can be exhausting even when she uses Otter to transcribe the conversation. Captions weren’t always accurate and didn’t identify individual speakers, which could make following up difficult, she said.

“It worked a little bit,” said Iacolucci, who lost his hearing nearly two decades ago. After returning home, she was so tired of trying to keep up with the conversation that she had to lie down. “It takes a lot of energy.” She received a cochlear implant a year ago which has significantly improved her ability to hear, to the point where she can now have one-on-one conversations without subtitles. They even help with group discussions, she said.

Otter said in a statement that it welcomes feedback from the deaf and hard of hearing community and noted that it now provides a paid software assistant that can participate in virtual meetings and automatically transcribe them.

Transcription delay can present other issues – among them, the concern that conversation partners might get impatient with delays. “Sometimes you say, ‘Sorry, I just have to look at my subtitles to hear it,’” said Richard Einhorn, a New York-based musician and songwriter. “That doesn’t mean I don’t know that it is sometimes a nuisance to other people.”

Other questions arise. When Chelle Wyatt from Salt Lake City went to her doctor’s office, the Wi-Fi wasn’t strong enough for the transcription app to work. “It was gestures and writing things down and making sure I get a written report afterwards so I know what was said,” she said.

Theaters offer devices that amplify sound, as well as individual glasses and screens that display subtitles to accompany the film. But they are not always comfortable and sometimes they are not well maintained or simply do not work. Many people with hearing loss want more movies to display subtitles on the big screen, just as you would in the comfort of your own home.

A new law that went into effect in New York City on May 15 requires theaters to offer on-screen subtitles for up to four showings per movie each week, including during the most popular movie-going hours — Friday nights and weekends. of week. Hawaii passed a state law in 2015 that required two viewings per week of each film with subtitles on the screen. AMC, the big movie chain, also says it shows some movies with subtitles in about a third of its theaters in the United States.

Subtitles are more available now for live performances as well. Several Broadway theaters promote a smartphone app that subtitles live performances; there are also individual portable devices that show subtitles. Theaters also have some “open captioned” performances that everyone can see.

During the pandemic, the shift to online meetings and school meant that video conferencing services became a survival tool – but subtitles only came after a big push. Zoom added live transcription to its free service only in October 2021, but the meeting host needs to enable them. Google Meet was fastest to make captions available for free to everyone in May 2020; Microsoft Teams, a workplace messaging app, did this in June.

“We need subtitles everywhere and we need people to be more sensitive,” Olken said. “The more I defend, the more other people benefit.”

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