Sunday, January 27, 2008

NPR plans live captioning for hearing impaired audience

The system would allow deaf and hearing impaired people to read radio broadcasts live as they are happening. According to a Jan. 8 press release from the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the system "will leverage cutting- edge HD Radio™ technology to enable hearing-impaired people to 'see' live radio content on specially equipped receivers by applying television closed-captioning processes to radio broadcasts. The technology also will provide audio cues and voice prompts, as well as advanced radio reading services, for those visually impaired and blind."

"We're using the new [high-definition] radio system, and a tiny sliver of the total bandwidth in a special channel we created," Mike Starling, chief technology officer and executive director of NPR Labs, said in The Towerlight newspaper. "Our demonstration broadcast was very similar to how it is done for live TV captioning - using a standard court reporter system that drives our customer software and transmits it using HD radio."

The new radio system is being developed through collaboration between NPR, the Harris Corporation and Towson University to form the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART), (Full disclosure: I am an employee of Towson University but am not affiliated with the center.)

"We're working very closely with radio stations around the world to ensure they have the right technical infrastructure in place for this initiative," said Howard Lance, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Harris Corporation, in the release. "The new HD Radio transmission systems we're installing are tailor-made for this effort, as their digital capabilities will make it relatively easy for stations to transmit live textual transcripts to HD Radio receivers."

"There is tremendous need for accessible radio for sensory-impaired people, including the deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind, visually impaired, print impaired, deaf/blind, and mobility impaired," Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, assistant professor of psychology at Towson and co-director of ICART, said in the release. "There is no question this initiative will have a profound impact on the quality of millions of people's lives. Finally, sensory-disabled individuals will have access to all radio programming, as well as radio emergency alerts and vital disaster recovery information."

More than 1,500 radio stations are now broadcasting in HD Radio in the USA, according to the CES release. More than half of the CPB-qualified stations have been awarded HD Radio conversion grants by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). According to recent estimates, by 2010, all 825 public radio stations should be broadcasting digitally.

The system ICART plans was announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jan 7-10, 2008. You can see a picture of what the system will look like at Gizmodo:

You can read the Towson University student newspaper report here: