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  • The Difference Engine–Help Needed!

    imageWay back in 2011 I wrote about the Difference Engine.

    It’s a simple but effective way of adding captions to live performances created by Coventry based Talking Birds.

    In short, a laptop runs the software and over a local wireless network it allows any device with a web browser to view subtitles.

    i.e your mobile phone, tablet or laptop.

    A really simple idea to an age old problem for anyone who wouldn’t be able to hear what was being said.

    It’s intended for live performance but the simplicity of the system means it could be easily and cheaply re-purposed to anything.

    School assembly? Conference? Training Courses? Museum? Art Gallery?

    I could go on and on…

    If it has a script that needs to be followed it wouldn’t take much to plug it into this.

    So many events are run without any thought for the deaf and hard of hearing purely because adding that sort of thing is normally expensive.

    With this system you need a laptop. That’s it.

    Anyone that needs to use the system can use a device they’ll likely have already. You could hook the laptop up to a screen or projector you’d probably be using at the event anyway too. 

    Talking Birds have been working hard to improve the system but as with most small organisations like this they struggle for funding.

    I honestly think they could really make a difference if they can get to the next level.

    So I need your help.

    They have reached the finals of this years Tech4Good Awards.

    To be in with a chance of winning the “People’s Award” they need votes.

    Go here 

    Enter your email address

    Click on the Talking Birds image


    Put something in the “where you found us” box (maybe mention me!)

    Click the button to submit the vote.

    That’s it!

    It’ll then give you some options for sharing on social media…If you do that too that would be cool.

    If you could take two minutes from your time to do that I’d be ever so grateful!

  • Andrews and Arnold–Deaf Accessibility Done Correctly

    Just a quick one I wanted to share.

    I frequently moan on my blog (and in person if we’re being honest!) about how Deaf accessibility, especially when it comes to technology isn’t something that’s taken into account often enough so it’s nice to be able to praise someone when they do get it right.

    Andrews and Arnold are a UK based ISP whose name regularly comes up in newsgroups and at user group meetings.

    I was checking out their website today when I saw this.


    That’s something I don’t see very often. A specific note for deaf customers with details on how they can get in touch with the organisation in a variety of ways (even via IRC and usenet!)

    I’m sure you’ll agree this is a good thing but what I really like about this is that it wasn’t tucked away on some obscure corner of their site.

    It’s on the front page of their site


    The contacts page also has email addresses, SMS numbers, and links to their twitter account.

    I’m not an Andrews and Arnold customer so can’t comment on the quality of their broadband or their customer service but it’s great to see some extra effort being made.

    The simple act of contacting a company is major headache in our household. Many companies, especially large ones won’t correspond via email and SMS is just not an option for them which means if Mrs P has a query about something (let’s say her mobile phone bill) how do we do this?

    It usually involves me calling them which isn’t easy as we’re both at work during the day and then we have a song and dance with customer services because I’m not the account holder. Sometimes they’ll speak to me and I have to relay info to Bryony and sometimes they flat out refuse. This means the whole thing becomes long winded and far more stressful than it needs to be.

    And this is just the short version of how it usually works!

    So well done Andrews and Arnold – I hope more companies follow your lead.

  • Live events and subtitles–a breakthrough?

    Just wanted to write about something I saw at the weekend.

    I’ve posted plenty of times in the past about the lack of accessibility for people with hearing problems.

    People take a lot for granted such as TV, DVD, cinema but if you have hard time hearing it can be a battle to get involved.

    Electronic and digital forms of entertainment should be really easy to provide subtitles for. If you watch a film multiple times the dialog always appears at the same time, every time so setting up subtitles shouldn’t be too difficult as it’s just a matter of displaying text at the correct timings.

    What about live entertainment? The theatre for example?

    There is already a solution for theatre called StageText.

    The idea is that a screen is placed near the stage and text is displayed during the performance.

    There are some downsides though. As you can imagine this needs specialist equipment and the number of shows are quite small, looking at the StageText “what’s on” list has 15 shows in March for the ENTIRE country.

    But what about other types of live entertainment? What about smaller events that can’t afford the cost of owning or hiring something like StageText? How many times have you been to a museum or similar where they have recorded audio to go with the exhibits? You can’t subtitle these surely?

    What I saw at the weekend has the potential to change this.

    On Saturday I went to an event run by Talking Birds,

    From their website,

    Talking Birds is a Coventry-based company of artists that specialises in acts of transformation. Often these are theatre works and structures which transform the experience of buildings or sites. Other times, they are smaller, more intimate artworks which transform a computer screen, or a telephone call. Our projects allow residents of a town, or a city, to explore a particular place of interest in a mediated way, making accessible a neglected or forgotten space and allowing people to examine it in a new light.

    They had taken over an unused building in Coventry and turned it into a Royal Mail sorting office to mark the closure of the actual sorting office just up the road.

    This sort of thing would ordinarily be off limits to a deaf or hard of hearing person as you just wouldn’t be able to following anything that was being said. Especially because performances were happening in various parts of the venue as opposed to a fixed stage. 

    However, we were able to test something called “The Difference Engine”.

    There was a wireless hotspot that Mrs P was able to connect to using her phone, she connected to a web server on the network using her mobile browser and subtitles were displayed directly onto the screen of her phone!

    It worked really well and a key part of this for me is that it’s something that is relativity inexpensive to run as it’s software running from a laptop!

    This means the system is portable and flexible. Anyone who wants to see the subtitles just needs a reasonably modern phone, tablet or netbook and if you needed to display subtitles for an audience in general all you’d need is another laptop and a screen to connect it to!

    I really think this has a lot of potential and could bring subtitles to ANY event with very little expense to the organisers.

    The system is still at version one stage so they are looking to improve for their next release and I’ve got my fingers crossed the system goes further!

    Just wanted to say a quick thank you to @Vornster for letting me know about this and inviting us to try it out.

  • MSN Video Player vs iPlayer

    I saw this article last week on the Times Online website,

    Microsoft challenges BBC’s iPlayer with its new MSN Video Player

    The recently launched UK MSN Video Player will show full series of various popular shows (there is even some old Doctor Who stuff on there!)


    This is all powered by Silverlight of course 😉

    On the face of it this looked really interesting. The picture quality was decent and a reasonable selection of programming (they’ll need to keep updating it to prevent it becoming stale though)

    However, my excitement once again turned to disappointment

    As always seems to be the case with anything new and shiny at the moment there is a distinct lack of subtitles. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know how many times I’ve come up against “Digital Discrimination”.

    The iPlayer is able to display subtitles and does for most programs (not all though)

    At the top of the page is a feedback link so I dropped my comments into there. It would be nice if this was sorted sometime soon but based on my experiences with the Xbox and it’s Zune Marketplace service I’m not holding my breath

  • Digital Discrimination

    I originally started another post that would mention this but I’ve decided it deserves a post all on it’s own

    Over the last few days I’ve been playing with the new Xbox features (that’s the post I started, it’s on the way!)

    When I first turned my Xbox on there was a handy little video displayed to explain what all the new features are so I fired it up

    Mrs P was sat next to me and asked

    “Don’t supposed it’s got subtitles has it?”

    If you’re a new reader, my wife is profoundly deaf, she’s currently being assessed to get a cochlear implant next year. You can read about it here ( as well talking about her experiences around the CI process she also discusses what it’s like to be “the deaf one”

    I pulled up the display menu and as expected there were no subtitles. If she wanted to find out about the new features either I had to explain them, she’d have to go to the website, or look through the online help

    I’ve blogged on here a couple of times about the lack of subtitles in Xbox Video Marketplace, even though it looks like the system supports it, the video description usually lists “subtitles: none”

    Since Zune Video was one of the new features I jumped into that to see if anything had changed

    Again I was disappointed, where under the old system it looked like there “may” have been subtitles, this time around the was no mention of subtitles at all

    What irritates me a lot about this that I can’t get any definitive answer as to why this is the case or if it’s ever going to change. Most Xbox games are pretty good when it comes to subtitles, in just about every game I’ve played cut scenes and the like have optional subtitles so that the story can be followed. I’m not sure what it’s like on the PS3/Wii though

    While on this, reviews games from a deaf standpoint so that as well as talking about the game itself it will highlight if you need to be aware of any issues where a lack of sound would interfere with playing the game. If a game gave instructions on how to control your character via voice over with no visual cues for example

    Access for people with disabilities is a problem in the digital world as well as the offline world, when regular people upload videos to youtube they don’t think about adding subtitles. I’m not saying everyone should but one of the most popular sites on the Internet is generally unavailable to anyone with a hearing problem (or a visual problem for that matter!)

    Did you know you can add subtitles to youtube videos?

    You can add a complete caption file which specifies exactly when each line of word should be spoken or you can upload a transcript and youtube will try and figure out where it should all fit

    There is a nice explanation of how this works here:

    However, the tutorial video is on a tiny little screen and has no subtitles…..the irony

    I could create a very long list of areas on the Internet that are just off limits to certain groups

    I do appreciate this isn’t something that has an easy solution. Broadcasting companies in this country are legally obliged to provide subtitles for 90% of their content. What if the program you want to watch is in that 10%. (The BBC are committed to 100% subtitling of content) If we can’t get that sorted on a platform that is under complete control how does a system like the Internet stand a chance?

    This is where I think the Xbox platform doesn’t have any excuse. Microsoft 100% control the system. They set standards for the type of content that is and isn’t allowed on their platform so why can’t we get subtitles set as one of those standards?

    Zune marketplace in my opinion has NO excuse at all. They are streaming major cinema releases. They have subtitles created for them for use in cinema (again I’ve blogged about this in the past!) and for the DVD releases. 

    Having not tried Sky Player on the website or on the Xbox I can’t comment on their ability to display subtitles. (again, I’ve got an opinion on this too) Does anyone know if they can? This another area where there really shouldn’t another reason not to do it

    Just for balance there are some technologies that have been a great leveller for deaf people

    Email, SMS, Instant messaging, twitter, forums, blogs, facebook, etc, all these services are based around visual functionality first. Some them do have video and audio but it’s the core functionality that means you need the keyboard to communicate means deaf and hearing people alike are on an equal footing

    If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the issues a deaf person can face when the digital and analogue worlds cross check out the the “Pesky People blog”. This blog first came to my attention when it’s writer Alison attended the “Hello Digital” event in October. She had tried to make provisions to attended the event but was badly let down by the organisers and she talks about various disability access issues in depth on the blog – it’s worth a read!

    So will anything change? I don’t know, going on my past experience around deaf issues probably not which is a terrible shame

    It would be good if I could get some information from Microsoft as to what there policies are for disability access around the Xbox, especially where Video Marketplace is concerned

    Also any opinions you have are welcome. Very few people come across disability issues on a day to day basis because it just doesn’t effect them. What lots of us take for granted as just regular day to day stuff is hard work for people with disabilities.

    Did you hear a traffic report on your radio on the way into work today? If you were deaf you would have just driven straight into that five mile tailback

    What about calling your credit card company as you’ve been incorrectly billed? Just a five minute call to get that straightened out? Not if your deaf, you either have to use minicom or type talk or get someone to call for you (then they insist on speaking to the account holder)

    Just a couple of examples but it happens every day