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July 31, 2004

Phone success for hard of hearing

From: BBC News, UK - Jul 31, 2004

A computer that generates pictures of moving faces from speech is helping hard of hearing users.

The technology, known as Synface, was hailed a success by the 40 people with hearing problems who trialled a prototype in the UK.

The software can be installed on a regular computer and is used with a standard telephone.

European scientists will use the trial results to tweak the device before it is made available in coming years.

Synface - synthetic face - was developed by researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and University College London.

Faces to lip-read

Users attach their telephone handset to a laptop computer with the software installed. They speak into the receiver as normal.

The system works by recognising the different sounds in speech from the person at the other end of the line and then recreating the lip movements on a moving artificial face displayed on a computer screen.

This enables the user to lip read real-time speech as well as listen in the usual way.

Unlike videophones, the other user does not need to have their phone attached to a computer and can use their existing phone.

The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) recruited 40 people with hearing problems to test Synface both in the office and in their homes.

Feedback was very positive, with most saying it helped them with their phone conversations.

Robin Zackheim, a 55-year-old man from North London who has hearing problems, took part in the trial.

He said: "The concept is absolutely brilliant because for years I just have not heard on the phone and I've had to ask people to repeat everything.

"It enables me to understand 90% of what people are saying on the phone rather than 40%.

"The finished product is going to be so wonderful because everyone can lip read to an extent.

"If someone is saying 'it's a lovely day' you immediately know what they are saying even if you can't hear it because of their facial conduct," he said.

When asked whether he would change anything about Synface, he said: "I would make the face more rounded with lower cheek bones because I found it distracting.

"I couldn't take my eyes away from the face...and your eyes need to look at the lips."

He said users might need to be taught how to use a computer, but he said it was very simple to use.

The trial will finish by the end of the year and the RNID hopes the device will be available within five years.

Scientists envisage the technology could be used with mobile phones, palm pilots and future communication devices.

It might also be useful for communication in noisy places.

Trial results
84% said it helped them make calls
74% said it made phone communication more effective
68% would use it for most or all of the calls they made and received