The FCC has gotten behind a new platform that helps the deaf talk to each other over video link. The idea of Accessible Communications for Everyone, or ACE as it’s being called, is that it lets all kinds of different apps talk to each other. It’s kind of how you can email anyone without worrying what app they use, only for video, and text and audio, all together.
ACE, which just shed its ugly former name, VATRP, is a modern alternative to TRS, an Internet-based service that lets deaf people place calls to regular telephones via assistive devices. ACE does the same, only for video and messaging.
The standard would let users call from Skype to Google Hangouts, for example. It will also support audio and text, making it useful not just for the deaf but for the partially sighted.
Users will be able to maintain a single address book for all services they use, unlike the current mishmash of contacts which are confined to individual apps, and ACE supports video “voicemail.”
The headline feature is that the FCC is getting behind a video calling standard, but the really useful part is the interoperability not between video providers, but between different technologies. Auto speech-to-text does just that, for example, letting deaf people read what the person on the other end of the line is saying. It might be best to think of ACE as a universal translator between every kind of human communication.
Back in the olden days of landlines and little else, the deaf could use something called TTY, a dedicated telephone line that would let a deaf user call in and talk to a hearing person. Many companies would list these numbers the way they listed a fax number. The limitation on TTY was that it used a human operator as an intermediary to translate the speech to text and vice-versa.
ACE even provides an option that companies and government agencies can replace those mostly disappeared TTY lines with ACE lines, providing a direct way for deaf callers to “call” in.
That’s not to say that human operators are obsolete. “In the broadband era, there is no reason for social security, or any agency that is the recipient of VRS calls, not to have direct video communication,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at the launch of ACE. “And they should, of course, hire people who are deaf or hard of hearing [and] fluent in ASL to take those calls.”
ACE is an open-source technology, so it can be incorporated into any app or service. Theoretically, then, Google Hangouts and Skype could talk to each other, but only if Google and Skype add the right code to their apps. That seems unlikely to happen. While ACE embraces the spirit of the open web, services like Skype dominate by locking users into their ecosystem. Maybe ACE can breach that wall.