Why subtitles are suddenly everywhere and how they got there

Why subtitles are suddenly everywhere and how they got there

Why subtitles are suddenly everywhere and how they got there

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People with hearing loss have a new ally in their efforts to navigate the world: captions that aren’t limited to their TV screens and streaming services.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of people around the world, but many people with hearing loss have found the resulting isolation particularly difficult. “When everyone’s wearing a mask, they’re completely incomprehensible to me,” said Pat Olken of Sharon, Massachusetts, whose hearing aids were insufficient. (A new cochlear implant helped her a lot.)

So when her grandson’s bar mitzvah aired on Zoom at the start of the pandemic, long before the service offered captions, Olken turned to Otter, an app created to transcribe meetings. ‘business. Reading with the speakers at the ceremony made the app “a terrific resource,” she said.

The hearing impaired, a group estimated at around 40 million American adults, have long embraced technologies to help them navigate the world of hearing, from Victorian-era ear trumpets to digital hearing aids. modern and cochlear implants.

But today’s hearing aids can cost up to $5,000 (about Rs 3,93,700), are often not covered by insurance, and don’t work for everyone. The devices also do not focus audible sound as glasses immediately correct vision. Instead, hearing aids and cochlear implants require the brain to interpret sound in a new way.

“The existing solutions clearly aren’t a one-size-fits-all and don’t meet a lot of people’s needs based on cost, access, a lot of different things,” said Frank Lin, director of the Cochlear Center. for Hearing and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. It’s not just a communication problem; researchers have found correlations between untreated hearing loss and higher risks of dementia.

Cheaper over-the-counter hearing aids are on the way. But so far, only about 20% of those who could benefit from hearing aids use one.

Subtitles, on the other hand, are usually much easier to access. They’ve long been available on modern televisions and appear more frequently in video conferencing apps like Zoom, streaming services like Netflix, social media videos on TikTok and YouTube, cinemas and live arts venues.

In recent years, smartphone apps like Otter; Google Live Transcription; Ava; InnoCaption, for phone calls; and GalaPro, for live theatrical performances, have emerged. Some are for the hearing impaired and use human reviewers to make sure the captions are accurate.

Others, like Otter and Live Transcribe, rely instead on what’s called automatic speech recognition, which uses artificial intelligence to learn and capture speech. ASR has accuracy issues and delays in speech transcription; embedded biases can also make transcriptions less accurate for voices of women, people of color and the deaf, said Christian Volger, a professor at Gallaudet University who specializes in accessible technology.

Jargon and slang can also be a stumbling block. But users and experts say ASR has improved a lot.

While welcome, none of these solutions are perfect. Toni Iacolucci from New York says her book club could be exhausting even when she used Otter to transcribe the conversation. Captions weren’t always accurate and didn’t identify individual speakers, which could make tracking difficult, she said.

“It kinda worked,” said Iacolucci, who lost his hearing nearly two decades ago. After she got home, she was so tired from trying to follow the conversation that she had to lie down. “It takes so much energy.” She received a cochlear implant a year ago which has dramatically improved her ability to hear, to the point that she can now have one-on-one conversations without captions. They always help in group chats, she says.

Otter said in a statement that it welcomes feedback from the deaf and hard of hearing community and noted that it now provides a paid software assistant that can join virtual meetings and automatically transcribe them.

Transcription lag can present other problems, including fear that callers will grow impatient with delays. “Sometimes you say, ‘I’m sorry, I just need to look at my subtitles to hear,’” said New York-based musician and songwriter Richard Einhorn. “That doesn’t mean I’m not aware that sometimes it’s a problem for other people.”

Other problems arise. When Chelle Wyatt from Salt Lake City visited her doctor’s office, the Wi-Fi wasn’t strong enough for the transcription app to work. “It was gestures and writing things down and making sure I had a written report afterwards so I knew what was said,” she said.

Movie theaters provide devices that amplify sound, as well as glasses and individual screens that display subtitles to accompany the film. But these aren’t always comfortable and sometimes aren’t well maintained or just don’t work. Many hard of hearing people want more movies to be captioned on the big screen, just like you would in the comfort of your own home.

A new law that took effect in New York on May 15 requires movie theaters to offer on-screen captioning for up to four showings per movie each week, including during the most popular movie-going times – Friday evenings and weekends. Hawaii passed a state law in 2015 that required two screenings per week of each film with on-screen captions. AMC, the major movie theater chain, also says it shows captioned movies in about a third of its US theaters.

Subtitles are now more available for live performances. Several Broadway theaters promote a smartphone app that captions live performances; there are also portable individual devices that display captions. Theaters also have a few performances with “open captions” for everyone to see.

During the pandemic, the shift to online and school meetings meant video conferencing services became a survival tool – but captions only came after a big push. Zoom only added live transcription to its free service in October 2021, but the meeting host needs to enable them. Google Meet was quicker to make captions available to everyone for free in May 2020; Microsoft Teams, a workplace messaging app, did just that in June.

“We need captioning everywhere and we need people to be more sensitive,” Olken said. “The more I plead, the more others benefit.”

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