For most of us, cell phones are indispensable. But for the 70 million people with profound or severe hearing loss, it represents a crucial missed point of contact. The RogerVoice app aims to change that. The soon to be released app–which blew past its $20,000 goal on Kickstarter in just one week to ultimately collect $35,000–uses VoIP and automatic speech recognition to provide subtitles for conversations in real time, making it easy for users to communicate with anyone who calls, all with no app download required on the other end of the phone and no intermediary required.
It is the brainchild of CEO Olivier Jeannel, a Los Angeles-born expat living in Paris, who was diagnosed with severe hearing loss in both ears at the age of two. “It’s not something that I now regard as a ‘loss,’ but there are nonetheless a few aspects of daily life in which I find myself wishing I could do ‘like everyone else.’ Being able to understand a phone conversation is one of them. Since I cannot lip-read on the phone, I have to ask others to handle calls for me. SMS, email, video chat, all of these are great, but there are just moments when a simple phone call is needed,” says Jeannel, 34.
So he took on the challenge, drawing on his eight-year tenure in finance and market studies at multinational telecom Orange and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of working with associations for handicap awareness. “I don’t recall a specific day when I thought to use voice-recognition for making phone calls accessible–the project matured slowly in my head,” he says. “I do recall the first trials in 2011, pairing together a phone with a voice-recognition system. I had asked my friend Sidney Burks to help me piece something together. I walked outside and he called me from his computer and sent the resulting text messages to my phone. I was ecstatic!” Burks now serves as RogerVoice’s CTO.
The app, which takes its name from military aviation slang for “received and understood,” represents a major improvement over the current telecom option for the hard of hearing. “There are existing phone-relay services in America and a handful of countries. It works very well, by using human intermediaries to type down the conversation between two people on a phone,” he explains. But users forfeit privacy and systems are costly to create, from equipment to training to maintaining a workforce.
RogerVoice makes use of the latest tech to solve those problems. “Pairing voice-recognition with a VoIP service is a difficult feat—it’s like combining Skype with Siri. We’ve gone through so many different techniques and iterations, and really tried to nail down the best approach, so as to render as fluid and conversational an experience as possible for deaf people,” Jeannel says. “Voice recognition is the future: Scalable. Efficient. Inexpensive. Private. Multilingual.”
Not hard of hearing? “A few folks have imagined interesting use situations. For example, in a loud bar or concert, you could use RogerVoice to hear the conversation and respond by text. On the opposite extreme, you could use it in a library or conference hall to make as little noise as possible when responding to a phone call,” Jeannel says. And you can use RogerVoice to transcribe phone calls or archive conversations, too.
Thanks to that successful crowdfunding campaign, RogerVoice will soon be available for download on a phone near you. The beta Android release is scheduled for next month, with a full public version ready to go worldwide in early 2015 for Android, iOS, Blackberry and Windows. Jeannel also has plans for third-party app integration and features like subtitled video calls and a text-to-speech feature for those who can’t vocalize. “We want as many folks to have access to this as possible! We’re here to challenge things, to make things possible, to turn the notion of accessibility on its head. Let’s kick ass.”