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March 8, 2004

Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minn., Technology Products Column

From: Miami Herald, FL - Mar 8, 2004

By Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minn. Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 8 - For Minnesota's deaf and hard of hearing, 2004 is shaping up to be an exciting year.

New technologies being deployed here promise to dramatically improve their ability to communicate, both with hearing people and with others who are partly or totally deaf.

Minnesota this year has become one of the first states to approve new phones with built-in text captioning. When hard-of-hearing people speak into the phones, they get transcribed replies on a screen in addition to regular audio through the phone earpieces.

For deaf people who use American Sign Language, a kind of videoconferencing called "video relay" has taken deeper root in the state. A new St. Paul call center staffed with ASL-savvy interpreters is making it much easier for the deaf and the hearing to interact.

These and other high-tech developments are moving hearing-impaired Minnesotans tantalizingly closer to a Holy Grail -- a society in which interacting with others is no more difficult nor time-consuming than for people with perfect hearing.

For former state senator Phyllis McQuaid, such improvements come none to soon. McQuaid, who represented St. Louis Park and Hopkins in the legislature from 1982 to 1990, has steadily lost her hearing in recent years due to a hereditary condition and now finds unassisted phone calls nearly impossible to handle.

"My grandchildren in Massachusetts, I never understand them on the phone," McQuaid laments.

But now she doesn't have to. Her text-captioning phone lets her read her grandkids' words much as she would television text captioning, and she can still hear their voices to get a sense of the conversation's tone.

"Now, when they call me, I can talk to them," she said. "There's nothing to it."

The phone-captioning technology will shortly be made available to all Minnesotans via the state-administered Minnesota Relay service, which has served as a technology-based communications intermediary between the deaf and hearing since the late 1980s.

Traditional Minnesota Relay service has largely relied on text being typed back and forth, with frequent delays and misspellings. The new service, using CapTel phones from Madison, Wis.-based UltraTec, is faster and more natural.

When McQuaid's grandchildren speak, their utterances are routed through a Madison call center. A staffer there re-enunciates every word so a computer can quickly convert it into text using voice-recognition software. That text then appears on McQuaid's phone.

When Minnesota Relay formally launches the phone-captioning service next month, it will begin making up to 50 of the $450 CapTel phones available to the hard-of-hearing at no charge, said spokeswoman Susan Weis.

The deaf are seeing rapid improvements in video-relay services that have become popular alternatives to traditional typed exchanges. The relay services make phone communication possible via call-center interpreters who speak with the hearing person on the call while exchanging ASL gestures with the deaf person using videoconferencing.

In something of a coup for local interpreters, who tout the Twin Cities as a leader in their exacting profession, Utah-based Sorenson Media has just opened a Sorenson Video Relay Service call center on St. Paul's University Avenue. The firm formally unveils the facility, one of six in the country, on Thursday.

"We courted Sorenson," said Nancy Evelyn, the center's director and one of eight interpreters who wooed the firm, which is well known as a video-technology developer.

Sorenson's arrival puts pressure on the state's top video-relay provider, the Sprint telecommunications giant and its partner, Communication Service for the Deaf, which operates a Moorhead, Minn. call center. Other video-relay services include AT&T VRS.

Sorenson users interact with ASL interpreters via TV-top videophones or Webcam-equipped PCs. The one-year-old service has won raves for video clarity and ease of use.

Mark Abercrombie of Minneapolis, who is partly deaf, says the Sorenson service has added emotion and spontaneity to conversations with hearing friends and family members compared to old, cold text. His videophone lets him interact directly with other deaf people who have similar equipment, too, which allows for natural ASL exchanges.

"I feel so connected" now, said Abercrombie, a mortgage consultant who also uses the service for business calls to hearing people.

Mark Epstein of Brooklyn Park says his Sorenson VP-100 videophone is a vast improvement over his PC-Webcam use because "the picture is very small with a Webcam and you have to sign in a limited area in front of your body.

"With the VP-100, I can be much more expressive," he said. "I can be as big and loud as I want to."

Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about personal technology. Reach him at or 651-228-5467. See his personal-technology weblog at

A CLOSER LOOK AT VIDEOCONFERENCING: Computer-based videoconferencing is coming of age as a communication tool for deaf people who use American Sign Language and want to easily interact over the Internet with friends, relatives and colleagues.

Tiny, blurry video windows on PC and Macintosh screens once made interpreting ASL gestures difficult. But recent video-chat advances along with the rising popularity of high-speed Internet connections have helped boost the use of computer Webcams among the deaf.

Mobility used to be a problem, too, but the rise of high-speed wireless networks now allows deaf people to use Webcam-equipped portable computers anywhere in range of such a network.

Sean Virnig of Northfield, Minn., is able to videoconference on his Mac laptop while keeping an eye on his 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. "They'll be running around the house, and I can be with them while using my iBook."

Virnig, who is principal at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, Minn., says his mobility is offset by sub-par video quality compared to that on desktop PCs found in his home, his office and his wife's office.

"Still, we use (the laptop) daily and are satisfied with what we can do with it," he said.

Videoconferencing services catering to deaf users have recently proliferated. Virnig uses Communication Service for the Deaf (, which operates in an alliance with the Sprint telecommunications giant.

Other options include Sorenson Video Relay Service ( that, like CSD, also allows for communication with hearing people via sign-language interpreters (see accompanying story). Another service, (, focuses on deaf-to-deaf communication.

Sorenson and, which relies on Internet software from Silicon Valley-based SightSpeed, are notable in that their underlying video technologies are regarded as generally superior to video-chat software and services used by the general public.

Some deaf Mac users swear by Apple Computer's iSight Webcam and iChat software that, like SightSpeed software on a PC or Mac, allows for near-full-screen video chats if the Internet connection and computer are fast enough.

Matt Klusza, who comes from a family of deaf people and who is engaged to a deaf woman, says the iSight/iChat combo has revolutionized communication among his loved ones, all of whom use the Mac products.

"We feel much more comfortable talking with each other as if we're talking with each other in person," said Klusza, a New Jersey native who works as residential counselor at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Conn. "We feel we can be 100 percent ourselves while talking on iSight by using ASL to communicate.

"Funny things sure can happen when we're on iSight," he said. "I usually take snapshots of us talking to see the funny facial expressions."

See some of Klusza's shots here:


© 2004, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minn. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. T, AAPL,

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