Friday, 9 November 2012

See Hear does tech

I decided to watch this week's See Hear (7th Nov Ep21 Series 32) about technology which was filmed in the At Bristol science and discovery centre.

I found the episode really interesting and the humour was right up my street. The main presenters were Memnos and Ahmed with three guest reviewers Frank, Louise and Jacob.

Wasabi fire alerter

First up was a brief feature on a Japanese fire alerting system called the Wasabi.

Designed for deaf and hard of hearing people emits a Wasabi smell to alert people to the fact it's going off as flashing lights need line-of-sight and deaf/HOH people may not hear a siren. The unnamed See Hear researcher didn't find the wasabi smell very alerty, it just reminded him of enjoyable Japanese food however others found it more irritating and eye-streamy. It apparently is quite reliable at waking people up!

Siemens Waterproof, sweatproof and dustproof hearing aid

This was the largest feature of this episode about Jamie a Scottish marathon runner who became moderately deaf when he was 17. Jamie struggled to cope with traditional hearing aids not being wearable while he ran in the rain or other outdoors environments. He plans to run a 160 mile marathon called the Ocean Floor Race in the Sahara Desert which would also be dusty. Jamie did some research and found the Siemans Aquaris a digital 12 or 16 channel waterproof and dustproof hearing aid marketed at active sporty people.

What I liked most about this feature was the emphasis on the social and every day impact of regular hearing aids' vulnerability to rain, sweat and dust. I take my hearing aid out in the rain and I've never really known any different. I can't swim with my hearing aids in so I only swim with people who can sign because I am too deaf to follow speech without it. Like Jamie I worry about being approached for any conversation when I am not wearing my hearing aid.

My only real criticism of this feature was the lack of detail about the Siemens Aquaris. It was named once, but never shown clearly outside of Jamie's ear. I had to resort to the Siemens scary sales-bling website to find out more...

Sony subtitle glasses

Next up was a feature about a pair of spectacles which display subtitles for deaf or hard of hearing person while they are at a cinema without having to have subtitles on the screen for all viewers. Hearing people often complain about subtitles which is a good way of making me lose my temper at their intolerance and ignorance.

Louise thought the glasses were heavy and a bit small but the subtitles themselves were very clear. Jacob felt the glasses affected the emotion of the films and he and Frank didn't like the way they had to look for both film and subtitles. have a brief review page of the subtitle glasses including a fairly informative three minute video explaining the issues and how the glasses would work in practice which wasn't really covered all that well in See Hear.

I was unsurprised to find that this system only works with Sony's 4K digital cinema system and is unlikely to ever be compatible with anything else. I have concerns about proprietary technologies and vendor lockin where that can limit people to only certain expensive products or suppliers and limit innovation by a wider pool of people. If there is only one supplier it changes the power balance of the supplier over the users.

Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT)

This was the best technically presented feature of the episode with a very clear show and tell of how the system works. I didn't feel I had to hit Google to find out more about how it worked because I was shown. I also have a long standing interest in the research into language recognition from my undergraduate degree.

PSLT is basically software which works on a laptop or mobile device (needs a camera) to pick up a signer's face and hands to recognise sign language using hand movement, orientation, shape, and facial information to turn that into text.

PSLT is in very early days yet. Even speech to text is highly variable in success and sign language presents a number of different challenges for recognition. A See Hear viewer was allowed to take PSLT out of the lab and spend a day playing with it. His review was honest about how he had to sign very slowly, in a very small sign space and the pickup was still very limited. However he had high hopes for development.

The PSLT development team were also very careful to clarify that they do not expect this software to replace professional interpreting for critical situations and that their aim is mainly about casual every day conversations and as a sign language learning aid. They have made it software so that it will be usable on a wide variety of devices which is an ethos I really strongly approve of.

Frank identified potential issues with regional signing. Louise was concerned about the development time and need for this now. Memnos was very positive about the researcher's working even when things got hard.

Alarm clocks review

Memnos, Ahmed, Frank, Louise and Jacob reviewed three different alarm clocks aimed at deaf and hard of hearing people.
  1. Amplicomms TCL200 at £43.83 ex VAT
    Frank didn't like the numbers or how the controls were on the top, side and back. Jacob felt it was aimed at hard of hearing people because of the speaking clock function which he felt was strange for a deaf people. Louise felt the music symbols on the back-controls implied it was more aimed at hard of hearing people who would listen to music. Memnos thought the vibration was quite subtle with the implication it might not be strong enough.

    I was a bit bemused by the fact that the reviewers (who all seem to be confident sign language using big D deafie types) were put off by the features which people with more hearing might use even though it also has a flashing light and vibrating pad. I checked the manual and it has a lot of features which is the sort of thing I like a lot but recognise others find that offputting and difficult. Maybe it is the fmGenie of alarm clocks. I wonder if the vibrating pad would wake me up at all!

  2. Bellman and Symfon Pro Model at £71 ex VAT
    Louise felt the vibration was a bit intermittent and slow so she thought it might not wake her up. Jacob felt that the gentle increasing vibrations which would wake him up gradually were a selling point as a strong vibration is very sudden and puts him in a bad mood - I laughed in recognition at this point!

  3. Geemarc Sonic boom SB200 at £26.66 ex VAT
    This was Frank's favourite because all the controls were simple and on the top. Louise liked the sleeker look of this and the strong vibration which would definitely wake her up.

Musical bath

The final quick feature showed Memnos sitting in a bath with comedy red shorts and little yellow ducks! The bath has a sound system built into it with strong bass vibrations which Memnos can't hear but can feel and his wife might hear. Ahmed rushed to jump in and boogie along to the beat.

A good friend of mine who until recently lived in Brighton has been involved in a musical swimming event where speakers are placed into a swimming pool while people are swimming. I'd probably get some hearing from this as a lot of my deafness is conductive. If I ever get round to going I'll write it up here!