Maritime schools work with IBM on text-to-speech tool

TORONTO — IBM, along with two Maritime universities, is deploying voice recognition software to help the hard of hearing follow along with classroom lectures and museum tours.

ViaScribe software captures a speaker’s voice via

microphone and translates the speech to text in real time. A deaf person can read along with the text on a computer or PDA screen. Sara Basson, program manager for IBM’s accessibility services, said that the software can translate with greater than 90 per cent accuracy. For professional speakers, the rate approaches 100 per cent.

The software has been tested in 10 universities in Canada, the U.S. and Australia and is already a boon in the classroom, said John Harker, president of University College of Cape Breton, N.S., one of IBM’s partners on the project. Hard of hearing students can follow along with the same lectures as their hearing counterparts. The technology could also be useful for the elderly.

“”I think that there’s a great market for ensuring the inclusion of older students,”” he said. “”It’s such an inclusive, modern tool.””

In January, UCCB will open an accessibility centre where this and other technology will cater to disabled students.

The first museum to use the service will be the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Cape Breton, beginning in the spring. The choice is appropriate, since Bell was a lifelong supporter of the deaf community and founded the A.G. Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C., in 1890.

Deaf visitors typically have to rely on printed materials or a family member in order to appreciate a museum, said Carol Whitfield, field unit superintendent at Parks Canada, the agency responsible for managing the Bell site. “”Unfortunately, they haven’t had the best way of learning,”” she said. “”Nothing can replace the interaction with an interpreter or guide.””

Using ViaScribe tools, the deaf will be able to receive information from tour guides at the same time as hearing visitors.

“”The technology represents freeing them from some of the difficulties they face in their life,”” said Jim Watson, the great, great grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Watson has worked with deaf children for the past 25 years. “”Access to spoken language poses severe challenges to the deaf and hard of hearing. New technology can alleviate some of the problems that (they) face,”” he said. “”In doing so, it improves their quality of life.

“”A.G. Bell would have been extremely pleased to see these new technological developments.””

ViaScribe will have uses outside of a device for the deaf. IBM is working on instant translation into other languages so visitors from other countries could follow the same museum tour spoken in English, but read it on-screen in their native tongue.

Hearing students may also wish to read along with university lectures, said Harker. He described the technology as “”setting a pedagogy on a new footing.””

He said, “”A lot of students don’t seem to have the same commitments to books that their parents had. They are very much screen learners. I can see this being a great winner for everyone.””

The software could also find a home in the corporate world. Saint Mary’s University, in Halifax, also partnered with IBM on the project. The university is beta-testing it in an enterprise, the name of which has not yet been revealed.

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