A Sound Idea That Still Needs Work


By John M. Williams While hearing people don't always realize it, the technology needs of a deaf person are often quite different from those of someone who is hearing-impaired. That's why many in the disability field were excited last year when a small company called Interactive Solutions rolled out the iCommunicator, a remarkable new technology.

The system -- a combination of hardware and software -- converts real-time speech into three separate formats. For the deaf, it renders speech as on-screen text. For the hearing-impaired, it converts the spoken word into computer-enhanced speech that can be digitally amplified for a hearing device. And for those who sign, the device can translate speech into sign-language symbols displayed on a screen.

STICKER SHOCK. Users can pick any two of these formats and access them simultaneously, making the iCommunicator ideal for educational uses such as class lectures or business meetings where members of the audience have different hearing levels. And the system, which uses DragonDictate 5.0 voice-recognition software, can also be hooked to a wireless mike so that speakers can use the iCommunicator without being tethered by a cord. The desktop and notebook versions include a Pentium III-based computer, iCommunicator software, color monitor, wireless microphone and receiver, external speakers, keyboard, cables, connectors, and a vocabulary of more than 12,500 words.

Sound almost too good to be true? It's an amazing system, all right. But the price is steep: $8,199 for a laptop, and $7,499 for the desktop model. Now, a year after its release, users have had a chance to test drive the iCommunicator. Is it really worth the price? The answer: Yes, and no. Some people rave about the iCommunicator. Others keep pointing to the price tag. Of this I'm certain: The price will have to come down before the iCommunicator can become a truly mainstream piece of assistive technology. And the company has to make it simpler for people to use.

The inspiration to develop the iCommunicator came from Morgan Greene and his parents. Two years ago, when Greene was a sophomore at Baymore High School in Miami-Dade County, Fla., he wanted to communicate directly with hearing students through a laptop that would translate voice to text, and then text to voice. Greene's parents approached more than 100 companies before Interactive Solutions in Sarasota, Fla., accepted the challenge.

SLIM SALES. The business possibilities for the iCommunicator would seem to be huge. The National Association of the Deaf, based in Silver Spring, Md., says about 25 million Americans are hearing-impaired to one extent or another, with approximately 4 million classified as profoundly deaf. Roughly translated, that means 1 out of every 11 people in the country is hearing-impaired.

Thus far, about 120 iCommunicators have been purchased by school districts, state and federal agencies, employers, and individuals. That hardly represents a mass sales volume, perhaps because of a continued reluctance among potential users to embrace a device that has inspired its share of beefs within the hearing-impaired and deaf communities.

One common complaint is that the iCommunicator doesn't match text and real-time sign language all that well. Says a spokeswoman from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's major liberal-arts college for deaf and hearing-impaired students: "The sign language displayed on the screen is not always in sync with the text."

BIG PROBLEM. Another obstacle is size: The iCommunicator's laptop configuration tips the scale at a hefty 25 pounds, which makes it tough to move around. "It weighs too much and, therefore, its portability needs to be addressed," says Dennis Hoffman, instructional supervisor for Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Programs in the Miami-Dade County Public School System.

Learning to use the machine requires an intensive two-days of training. Those sessions, which accommodate no more than 10 people, cost between $1,000 and $3,000 -- and that's on top of the iCommunicator's already steep price. Ouch! Until the cost comes down, people working to place the hearing-impaired in jobs believe its impact will be limited.

Sam Nygren, director of assistive-technology training company Choice Unlimited in Duluth, Minn., uses the iCommunicator and is impressed by the technology -- but not the price. "It's good for employee training, job interviews, and meetings," says Nygren. But he adds: "But for more businesses to purchase them, the prices need to come down, and the voice-recognition training needs to be improved and reduced from two days to one or less."

NOT SO EASY. The logical question would seem to be: Why can't the software used to run iCommunicator be sold without the hardware? After all, software is cheaper than hardware and can be installed on any number of devices. Alas, the company says it's not so easy. "Our software simply will not function on the average computer bought off-the-shelf," explains Michael Dorety, president of Interactive Solutions. "Due to the complexity of the system, and how it interacts with the hardware components, we must install the software here at the factory."

The company is looking into ways of reducing the software cost, as well as improving portability and training requirements. One possibility: software that can be used with cheaper laptops. As it stands now, the system demands high-end models with huge amounts of hard-drive space.

To be sure, Interactive Solutions should be commended for taking on a tough problem that bigger companies have largely ignored. And future generations of the iCommunicator should have a major impact in the deaf and hearing-impaired communities. "This product has the potential to unlock barriers in both language and reading, and to empower our deaf and hard-of-hearing students to achieve higher levels of education and communications," says Miami-Dade's Hoffman, who has purchased 10 iCommunicators for his school system's 440 deaf or hearing-impaired students.

The iCommunicator is a promising start in expanding communications opportunities for the deaf and hearing-impaired. To the extent it can help both of those audiences, it has strong market potential. I only hope Interactive Solutions will figure out a way to produce a more compact and less expensive iCommunicator that is even more versatile. For now, however, it remains a tough sell. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.

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