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Google Debuts Android Apps to Help People with Hearing Problems

In its latest effort to use technology to improve the lives of the disabled, Google is rolling out two new Android apps to help people who have hearing problems.

Live Transcribe gives hard-of-hearing and deaf people text-to-speech capabilities, providing real-time captions for conversations that scroll on users’ phones. Meanwhile, Sound Amplifier, which requires headphones, lets users amplify the volume of what they want to hear and reduce background noise.

Sound Amplifier became available Monday for Android 9 or newer phones through Google’s Play Store. Live Transcribe will gradually roll out in a limited test to users worldwide. Pixel 3 phones come equipped with both products.

“Accessibility is a fundamental tenet of product development here at Google,” said Brian Kemler, Android accessibility product manager. “We’re passionate about and driven by creating smartphone experiences made for everyone regardless of their conditions.”

Google has been working on improving accessibility for the disabled for the past six years. Last year, the team introduced Lookout, an app that helps people with visual impairments by providing auditory cues to help them understand their environment. It also leveraged 50 million local guides, who contributed accessibility information for more than 40 million places on Google Maps.

For Live Transcribe, Google partnered with Gallaudet University, an institution for deaf and hard-of-hearing students based in Washington, D.C. The idea was to create a product that made sense for the growing hard-of-hearing community. The World Health Organization estimates that about 446 million people worldwide have hearing loss or are deaf. That number is estimated to grow to more than 900 million in 2050.

Live Transcribe works with 70 languages, some with multiple dialects, and also visually indicates the volume of the person speaking. This helps users know at what volume they should respond.

In a live demo, the technology generally could transcribe conversations with accuracy, including tricky transcriptions like when to use the word “Chile,” the country, versus “chili,” the meaty stew. It was less accurate transcribing people with foreign accents or people who were far away from the device.

Another nifty feature—Live Transcribe provides the option to mask profanity. The app uses asterisks to indicate that someone used profanity.

One of the researchers who worked on and helped test Live Transcribe was Dimitri Kanevsky, a Google employee who has nearly 300 U.S. patents, invented the world’s first Internet transcription services for deaf users, and also created the first voice recognition system in Russian.

Sound Amplifier, initially revealed at the Google I/O developer conference last year, is not only helpful to the hard-of-hearing but also people who are having trouble hearing in noisy places like in a loud bar. The app has two sliders, “boost” and “fine tuning,” to zero in on the sounds the user wants to hear. It also gives users the ability to adjust the amount of background noise that is audible.

“These are just the start of some of the things you’ll see us work on over the next year or two,” Kemler said. “We’re not just adding accessibility onto an existing product, but we’re building, in these two cases, for accessibility first.”