Disability Innovations: App enables people with hearing impairments to use the phone

Disability Innovations is a blog series that gathers some of the most interesting new products and services that aim to make disabled people’s lives easier. We hope it will inspire more innovation in the disability field.

What is RogerVoice?

RogerVoice is an App that enables people with hearing impairments to have conversations on the phone, by converting speech to subtitles in real time. This innovative use of existing technology has already allowed deaf people to make their first ever phone calls, and has the potential to include millions of people in an activity which most of us take for granted. It has already received much positive media attention, so last week I excitedly tested it out with Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and founder Olivier Jeannel to understand how it works and what the potential for it is.

What’s the story behind it?

Olivier grew up in the US where he experienced the phone relay service that was available for free. He moved to France in his early 20s to work for telecom company Orange, while also helping friends on a communication project for deaf people in France. He became aware that the relay system which was so important to deaf people in the US was not available in France or worldwide. What was on offer relied on expensive human translators. His experience and perspective of both the telecom system and working for the deaf came together, and inspired him to want to work towards a system that allowed people with hearing impairments to communicate on the phone.

After seeing technology like voice recognition and Siri being introduced in the mainstream, Olivier felt it had huge potential beyond being a fun (but often useless) gadget for people.  Being young and impatient, and himself hearing impaired, he explains that all he wanted was for technology to do amazing things for people, so he started working on RogerVoice.

How does it work?

The App uses existing technology, including a standard telecoms system and a voice recognition system. If you are hearing impaired, you download the app and make a phone call. When the recipient of the call speaks to you, their voice is intercepted, transcribed, and can be read on your phone’s screen in real time. When you respond, your voice can be heard on the other end just like a standard phone call. The recipient doesn’t need to download the App, making it more seamless to make a phone call.

Currently people with hearing impairments either use message based systems to communicate, or the expensive relay system which uses human transcribers. The App works for people who can speak orally, but Olivier is also working on a function for people who can’t communicate orally so that messages they write can be read out over the phone via text-to-speech recognition.

What is the potential for the App?

Olivier describes two main possibilities that can be achieved through RogerVoice. The first is a practical aspect; using the phone for booking doctor’s appointments to organising taxis and meetings. But he has been most excited by the emotional aspect, where deaf people can now use the phone to talk to family and friends and can be included in an activity that is so important and so ingrained in day to day life.

Olivier expresses that even if he doesn’t need to use the phone a lot, the most important thing is that he can. He has been excited by the feedback so far from users and families testing the App who have had their first ever phone conversations. It’s this feedback which inspires him to keep working so hard on the technology, to make it available as fast as possible.

Is it available now?

Currently the app is undergoing beta-testing on Android so that the team behind RogerVoice can ensure that the tech is working smoothly and is bug-free. The App is compatible in many languages, and works particularly well with those that already have a lot of data around voice recognition. It is due to be available for the iPhone in August and the public launch will be in September this year.

Olivier wants to ensure that the tech is ready, but crucially that people are ready to use it and understand what it’s meant for. The technology is not meant to exclude any groups, but to make sure as many people as possible are included in everyday technology. He stresses that RogerVoice is not out there to compete with existing systems such as the relay system, but to be a complementary offer. Human transcribers offer a superior level of quality and accuracy which should still be relied upon for business or conference calls.

What we like about it

This seems like such an exciting development which uses widely available technology to make a real and dramatic difference to a huge number of lives. We often hear feedback from disabled people around how they don’t want niche services or websites that cater solely to their needs. They just want mainstream services to be accessible.

RogerVoice could offer a way for existing and accepted technologies to be inclusive for a new audience, and we will be watching their progress over the next few months with great anticipation.

This blog is for information only. Scope does not endorse this product or service. We try to make sure our information is up to date and accurate at the time of publishing.

To tell us about a Disability Innovation you’ve seen, please email innovation@scope.org.uk.