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February 3, 2004

Videophone booths let deaf chat

From: Salt Lake Tribune - Feb 3, 2004

By Christopher Smith The Salt Lake Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The world's only university for the deaf and hard of hearing heralded a Salt Lake City company's breakthrough in communication technology Monday, unveiling the nation's first videophone booths, which allow phone calls to be made via sign language interpreters.

"It's really marvelous," I. King Jordan, president of Gallaudet University, said as he watched a deaf student make the first live video relay call from one of 10 videophone booths installed on the campus by Utah's Sorenson Media.

As the student signed her conversation with hand signals in front of the Sorenson VP-100 videophone camera, an American Sign Language interpreter at one of Sorenson's nationwide call centers spoke the message over the phone to her grandmother, relaying back the grandmother's reply to the student by signing over the video Web link.

Using a technology first developed at Utah State University to squeeze huge digital video files through a normal 256-kilobyte broadband Internet connection, Sorenson's Video Relay Service is able to transmit a detailed, fluid video stream in instantaneous real time across the Web, freeing the deaf from the clunky, traditional typing-and-text based "TTY" phone system notorious for pregnant pauses in conversations. The Sorenson videophone system also allows direct video relay of sign language between two deaf parties using the Sorenson units, 5,000 of which have been distributed around the country since March.

The videophone units and the sign-language translator service are provided free to the deaf and hearing impaired, with the company partially reimbursed through federal fees paid by all telephone line subscribers. In Salt Lake City, Sorenson Media has hired more than 100 deaf or hearing-impaired employees since spring to help with the deployment of the system, which today will be unveiled with a 35-inch video monitor at the Helen Keller National Center in New York for sight- and hearing-impaired students.

Sorenson Media Chief Executive James Lee Sorenson, son of Utah philanthropist and millionaire James LeVoy Sorenson, said the use of the company's video compression technology for communications for the deaf could eventually reignite videophone interest in the broader consumer market.

"We felt that if it was good enough for the rapid hand movements and facial expressions with sign language, the quality would be good enough for the hearing [market]," said Sorenson, who credits his deaf brother-in-law as the inspiration for the application. "We're focused on vertical segments right now such as video relay, health care and business, but ultimately family-to-family communication, the call to grandma, is going to drive this technology."

© Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.