IM this article to a friend!

May 11, 2003

Text-talk benefits hearing impaired

From: Contra Costa Times, CA - May 11, 2003

By Jon Fortt

Hank Nothhaft noticed an unusual trend when he became chief executive of Palo Alto-based Danger in October just as its SideKick text-messaging and cell phone device was taking off.

Danger was getting a lot of feedback from unexpected quarters.

"We got some e-mails initially from people who were influential in the deaf community talking about how much they liked the device, and they're a great forum for providing constructive feedback," Nothhaft said

While many deaf customers loved the SideKick, they had some suggestions: More battery life would be great. A data-minutes-only plan from wireless carrier T-Mobile would also be nice, since hearing-impaired users often don't need voice minutes. And hearing-impaired gadget-lovers on online message boards -- where the T-Mobile SideKick is achieving celebrity status -- wanted a way to translate their text messages into voice calls.

The SideKick's popularity is the latest sign that the communication revolution that began with e-mail and instant messaging isn't slowing for the estimated 20 million people in the United States who have limited or no hearing -- it's accelerating as Internet connections get faster and go wireless. Technologies such as faster cellular data networks and 802.11 wireless standards have gained popularity in the past two years, and while many businesses are unsure just how to employ the new tools, deaf consumers are taking the lead.

Case in point, wireless companies say it's common to see students at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington D.C., instant messaging each other instead of only using sign language when they gather in groups.

Though Nothhaft said text-to-voice technology in the device is still a long way off, a number of the ideas from hearing-impaired customers will result in changes, soon. Danger expects T-Mobile to introduce a data-only plan, and the company will sell extra batteries to allow all-day SideKick use.

"Our current product was initially designed to serve a youth demographic, and so clearly students at Gallaudet University are right in that demographic -- and happen to be deaf," Nothhaft said.

David Simmons of Annapolis Md., who is hearing impaired, said he has sold two-way pagers to the deaf since 1996. Under the company name DeafMobile, he has sold T-Mobile's SideKick at locations including Gallaudet, and he plans to continue doing so under a new name, Simmunicate.

"Right now, the deaf market is trying to 'graduate' themselves from Research In Motion pagers to SideKicks," Simmons said in an interview over instant messenger. It can be difficult for deaf customers to trade up to new technology, he said, because of the one- and two-year contracts that wireless companies lock subscribers into. "SideKick has surpassed the sales volume I have seen since 1996."

Simmons is not alone with that experience. Wynd Communications, a Santa Cruz company that sells wireless services to the deaf, indicated on its Web site last week that SideKicks are back-ordered. The SideKicks are popular because their screens are capable of showing more detail than a standard cell phone, and the devices allow both instant messaging and Web surfing.

The devices cost about $250. Service plans are $40 or $60 a month depending on the number of voice and data minutes. A data-only plan is expected to be cheaper.

These technology advances are important because deaf customers don't always get such direct benefit from Silicon Valley innovation.

Until now, the main technology to help deaf people communicate has been TTY, also called the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, or TDD. Available since the 1960s, TTY works through phone lines, and the experience is something like instant messaging. Alternatively, TTY users can employ an operator to translate text and have a phone conversation with a hearing person -- a process called "relay."

Though relay seems like an ideal application to put on the Web, it did not begin to move off the proprietary TTY system and onto the Internet until last year, said Mike Ligas, region vice president for Sprint's relay service. Backed by a federal subsidy, the hard of hearing can now go online and make free operator-assisted phone calls from Web sites such as .

But the big deal in relay isn't the emergence of TTY-like services on the Web -- it's video relay. This service, which is also backed by a federal subsidy, allows the deaf to use a computer and a Web-connected video camera to make calls. The deaf caller uses sign language to communicate with an operator through the Web cam, who then speaks to the hearing person on the other end. When the hearing person replies, the operator translates it into sign language.

"It's used for everything that you can imagine. It's used for ordering pizzas, calling the doctor, calling your mom," Ligas said. "It allows people to communicate at the speed at which we're talking rather than the speed at which we can type. It's about 150 words per minute versus 60 words per minute. It's a much smoother mode of communication."

Internet-based relay services are growing in popularity, but they are still dwarfed by TTY-based relay. Ligas estimated that of the 200 million relay minutes that are used in the United States each year, in the past year maybe 2 percent were video relay, 5 percent to 7 percent were Internet-based relay, and the rest were TTY.

But while Internet relay calls are free, the equipment is not. Doing video relay means having a personal computer with a monitor, which costs at least $550 today, plus a $75 Web cam and a broadband Internet connection such as DSL or cable modem, which cost between $40 and $50 per month. Plus, broadband is not yet available everywhere in the country.

While there are start-up costs for video relay, they are low compared with the premium deaf consumers have historically paid for basic communication. For example, TTY phones today are as affordable as they have ever been but still cost between $200 and $600 -- making the more expensive phones about the price of a new personal computer.

The limited market tends to keep the prices high.

"Many companies have taken the view that there are niche markets ... often relatively small, and the price of the product that is produced is often extremely high," said Shon Saliga, director of IBM's Worldwide Accessibility Center in Austin, Texas.

The key, Saglia said, is often to take technology such as television's closed captioning, which was developed for the disabled, and bring it to the mass market.

"My children actually grew up believing that closed captioning was designed for gyms," Saglia said. "Whatever technology we develop, if we market them and sell to the mainstream, we give those individuals that have impairment more opportunity than they ever had before. The price drops, the technology is more prevalent, and the user who happens to have maybe a permanent disability gets the benefit of a lower price."

Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder. All Rights Reserved