Signs of improvement
Evangelista, Chronicle Staff Writer
For Melvin Patterson, who has been completely deaf since he was a toddler, communication is a visual experience.
In the past, conducting a conversation using traditional nonvisual telecommunications tools like telephones and pagers was frustrating. Text messages or sign language conversations on jittery Web video screens were a pale substitute for a face-to-face exchange.
But that changed dramatically when Patterson tried iChat AV, new videoconferencing software, and iSight, a new Web camera, which Apple Computer Inc. introduced during the summer.
"When my girlfriend and I were able to talk to each other using iChat with iSight, I can't describe the feeling I had,'' the Chicago film school student said in an e-mail to The Chronicle. "I'm sure it is the same feeling people had long ago when the telephone was invented, being able to hear someone's voice with all their inflections from a distance."
Unlike any other technology he had seen, Patterson, 31, said the iChat AV software produced video that was clear enough to see another person's fingers and hand movements, a crucial element in communicating in American Sign Language.
Now, Patterson said, "We can communicate with all the inflection and expression, as we do in person, from a distance. I have been waiting for so long for technology that improves accessibility for the deaf and hard of hearing.''
In the past, the high cost or inadequate video quality has limited the use of video or Web conferencing by the 28 million people in the nation who are deaf or hard of hearing.
In the past year, though, new advances in technology such as iChat have started to open up unexplored avenues of video-based communication. A La Jolla (San Diego County) firm called ClubDeaf LLC, for example, is set to launch a Web video service using a new program developed by Berkeley startup SightSpeed.
"I can have a conversation with my parents, and it's the next best thing to sitting in their living room with them face-to-face,'' said Bert Pickell, co-chief executive officer of ClubDeaf.com. Pickell's parents are deaf, and he is partially deaf.
And last week, the Ohlone College Deaf Center announced it has picked a Utah company, Sorenson Media, to provide video relay services for more than 200 students and six teachers at the school.
"It's like a dream come true for us,'' said Ron Burdett, dean of deaf studies and special services at Ohlone College in Fremont. "And the best part of it is, we get to use our own language, sign language, which is the language we grew up with.'' Burdett spoke in a telephone interview conducted through a video relay with a Sorenson American Sign Language interpreter.
The invention of the telephone in 1876 revolutionized voice communications for people who could hear. But for the deaf community, the use of phone lines has been mainly limited to devices such as a TTY, also known as a TDD, or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, which are used to type text messages on a keyboard.
More recently, text-based pagers have become a popular telecommunications tool for the deaf, as have e-mail and instant messaging on the Internet.
While effective, those text messaging systems are time consuming. "Away from home, to make a phone call requires a slow process of typing and reading on a TTY,'' Patterson said.
And for a deaf person, natural communication and social interaction starts with seeing the words and letters in sign language, reading lips or other visual cues.
Video or Web conferencing can provide that kind of visual communication, but Patterson noted that the various systems he's seen had been complicated to set up or provided jittery, blurry video images. That's a problem for people who are used to seeing fast-moving fingers and hands of someone speaking through sign language.
Patterson believes iChat AV will become a big hit in the deaf community because it provides a real-time image that can keep up with the speed of sign language and is easy to set up.
"Many of us deaf Mac users bought iSight so that we can communicate with each other,'' Patterson said. "The technology popular for deaf people has been two-way pagers, but obviously, using iChat and being able to talk in our own language is far better than sending text back and forth.''
Apple has revamped its older iChat instant-messaging program with a new version that supports Web video conferencing.
Although the final version of iChat AV won't be available until later this year, with the release of Apple's Macintosh Panther operating system upgrade, more than 500,000 copies of a free beta version of iChat AV have been downloaded since June 23, when it was released in conjunction with the Cupertino computer maker's new $150 iSight Web camera.
Apple's aim was to promote video conferencing, and along the way sell more Macintosh computers. However, Mac fans like Patterson believe iChat may find a specific audience in the deaf community.
Another system, Video Relay Systems, also known as VRS, offered by telecommunications firms like Sprint and AT&T, takes a different approach. A sign language interpreter watches a deaf person convey his or her message by video phone or Web cam and translates the message at the same time by regular phone for the receiving party.
Ohlone's Ron Burdett said his college selected Sorenson's VRS because the company's EnVision SL video relay software, which works with either a Web cam or one of 11 Sorenson video phones installed on campus, provided the best- quality video he had seen.
"Once we saw the demonstration, we decided there was no other option for us,'' said Burdett.
Burdett estimated that the new system would save the college about $26, 000 for each student in need of sign language interpretation. Launched in April by Sorenson, the service is free for students. Sorenson's Chief Executive Officer James Sorenson said the firm recoups most of its costs, excluding the phone equipment, from federal funding disbursed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. About 30 percent of the video conferencing firm's revenues now come from VRS services.
But Burdett said the real worth of the VRS system shows up in services such as the on-campus job placement center. Before, deaf students would try to set up phone interviews with potential employers, but have to use unwieldy TTY devices or get an interpreter to speak for them on the phone.
"It was really frustrating using the old-fashioned TTY system, because many of the companies would just hang up,'' Burdett said. In the new system, "The speed is real time, and the communication just flows naturally.''
Bert Pickell, the CEO of ClubDeaf.com, believes video relay services like Sorenson's mainly help the deaf community communicate with people who do not know sign language. There's a greater need, he says, for a video service that lets deaf people sign directly to each other without an interpreter.
Pickell's firm is preparing to launch a site designed for deaf people to communicate using a Web cam and a PC. The site uses SightSpeed, a program designed by a Berkeley company of the same name that was founded two years ago to create software for general-purpose Web conferencing. The company is working on versions for Macintosh and Linux.
Pickell said he believes SightSpeed's software will become an important technology for the deaf community: "The speed the video plays at is the best thing we've been able to find, by quite some margin.''
E-mail Benny Evangelista at email@example.com .
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