Open Up The World
You could say Alex Jones, co-founder of Ai-Media, had a keener interest than most in creating access for people with disabilities. Alex was born deaf. While his achievements in acting, educating and advocacy for people with disabilities are legendary, Alex grew up not having the same level of access as his hearing friends.
Then Alex met Tony, another keen advocate for people with disabilities. Tony, having returned from a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, was looking to make a meaningful impact in the world. So together they started Ai-Media – a company devoted to improving the quality of life for people with disability using technology and social innovation.
2003 Access on Pay TV
Deaf people in Australia could watch high-quality captioned TV on five free-to-air channels, but in 2003 the costs of captioning were too high for the emerging Pay TV industry with many more channels, and smaller audience shares, but facing the same costs for an hour of captioning.
Together with industry leaders, Alex and Tony engaged community groups in Australia to ask whether they wanted to maintain the consistency of captioning style then prevailing in Australia or whether they were happy with “American-style” captioning on more content. Of 1,026 responses, 100% said “more content please”.
By 2004, Ai-Media worked to drastically cut the costs of captioning, principally by repurposing captions that had been shown on overseas networks for the same program. Large scale captioning began on Foxtel – and has now grown to cover over 300,000 hours a year of content.
Making an impact in education
Access to TV was one thing, but Alex and Tony knew that to have a meaningful impact on the lives of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, the key was to innovate in the education space. Deaf students were 2.5 times less likely to even finish high school, relying on note takers, sign language interpreters and lip reading to gain access to classroom content. Live captioning in the classroom would ensure that Deaf students had direct access to the English language in real time.
Up until now, live captioning for television had been delivered using specially trained stenographers, who are able to type using a special 22 key keyboard at speeds of up to 240 words per minute. The problem is that this delivery wasn’t scalable into education. It takes four years to train a stenographer and as such the delivery costs were too high. Technology presented some new solutions. Speech recognition software had improved significantly, largely aided by some huge leaps in computer processing speeds, and it became possible to deliver live content through respeakers – people who had the aptitude to listen to content and respeak it into speech recognition software specially trained to their voice. We began researching how to create a live captioning solution using respeakers to deliver live captioning at the speed of speech.
First live test for classroom captioning
We ran our first on-site test into delivery of live captioning for deaf students in mainstream classrooms. Partnering with the NSW Department of Education, we set up a live test at Blackwattle Bay Campus in Glebe, NSW. That particular school was chosen because it had a large broom cupboard located next to the classroom and it was within this cupboard that our first respeaker tested the delivery of live captions for a deaf student, whereby she would respeak into her computer and the student was sharing her screen connected over the school’s wifi. The trial was a huge success.
“New Inventors” Win
Ai-Live wins its feature episode on the ABC’s New Inventors program for the enormous potential impact of the technology as a practical, affordable, reliable and scalable solution allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing students to participate fully in mainstream classrooms.
The unexpected discovery
We were well underway with another similar trial into live captioning with the Victorian Department of Education for 30 deaf students in 12 Victorian schools. The University of Melbourne completed an 18-month evaluation into the effectiveness of live captions and discovered that, not only were they helpful for the students, but teachers were changing the way they taught because they were reviewing the transcripts from their lessons. This observation gave rise to an idea – how could captioning help teachers and improve the outcomes for students. We began working on a new project with the University of Melbourne called The Visible Classroom.
Trials begin into captioning for students with ASD
We opened our operation in London delivering live captions for deaf professionals all over the UK. We also met Eileen Hopkins, an expert in the field of Autism and began exploring the idea of training captioners to summarise content to make it more accessible for a range of students including those with ASD. In the same year, we began providing “Simple Text” captions into classrooms in the UK.