As the only hearing person in his family of four, Thibault Duchemin is accustomed to navigating the territory between two worlds. The recent Engineering alumnus drew on his experience as an interpreter when he created Transcense — the first captioning app for mobile devices that enables real-time communication between the deaf and hearing.
While a graduate student at Berkeley’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, Duchemin created the app with classmate Pieter Doevendans and USF Computer Science graduate student Skinner Cheng — who is hearing-impaired himself. The team wanted to create a new platform that allows deaf people to participate in group conversations where they previously lagged behind.“Not understanding what people are saying around you is actually really painful,” Duchemin explains.
He likens the isolating experience to a hearing person being immersed in a foreign language that he doesn’t understand. The messaging system was designed in April 2014 for deaf people to communicate in real-time at social gatherings, business meetings, or family dinners.
When a hearing-impaired person launches the app on his phone, it sends a notification to others in the room, allowing them to participate in the mobile conversation. By accepting the invitation, participants enter a world that transcends silence and noise. Through the functions of voice recognition and transcription, the system captures audio and translates it into text in fractions of a second.
“It’s already twice as fast as any solution that exists today,” Duchemin notes.
Instead of depending on an interpreter or struggling to read several people’s lips at once, the app helps the hearing-impaired “jump into the conversation and say your opinion.” The system also articulates text for the 10% of the hearing-impaired population whom Duchemin says aren’t able to “vocalize properly.” For example, if a deaf person types ‘yes’ in the system, he has the option of vocalizing his text for the entire room to hear. In addition, the app identifies speakers through color-coding, which allows participants to easily follow along with the conversation.
As a member of SkyDeck — a Berkeley startup accelerator — Transcense hopes to continue catering to users’ needs by creating new functionalities and adapting to other devices. Taking into consideration the 400 million hearing-impaired people and their family and friends, Duchemin says that the app could help 25% of the world population. He adds that the system has the potential to have further broad-sweeping impacts: “There are communication gaps everywhere — not just for the deaf and hearing-impaired people — it’s just that right now those communities need it more than hearing communities.” In the future, Duchemin hopes that the system could be used in other situations, such as for language translation or transcribing interviews. Although the system is currently geared towards a US and UK audience, the team hopes to offer more languages. Transcence is still in its trial stage, slated to launch around June.
For now, Duchemin is using the app to communicate with his family — where his inspiration for the system began. When he returned to his home country of France during the holidays, his family was elated to use the device. He also introduced the app to his grandfather, who began losing his hearing five years ago and doesn’t know sign language. “It’s all about bridging communication gaps,” Duchemin explains.
For more information and to apply to SkyDeck’s spring session, visit the SkyDeck website. The deadline is March 31, 2015.