The Future of Communication Technologies for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People: A Deaf Engineer’s Perspective

The issue

I am a consumer of assistive devices (two hearing aids) since I was 4-years old and alternative/augmentative communication devices (captioning, speech recognition, notification) since college.  I gain significant benefit when I use these devices compared to when I do not.  However, my access to auditory information is not on a par with the hearing norm.  For example, sometimes I am unable to detect the sound of a word or a sentence through hearing aids, and I have missed sound notifications (like doorbells and alarms) in my surroundings.

What we know

One of the major technology “indicators” over the last 50 years is semiconductor technology. Semiconductors enable the technologies familiar to most of us today—consumer products from digital hearing aids, LED, and smart appliances to solar panels, smart thermostats, and cloud data storage—and beyond, to the Internet of Things (IoT) and cognitive computing. These technologies demand more computing power, gained by increasing the number of transistors in a silicon footprint. With a critical mass of growth in the marketplace recently, the IoT—IP-based devices connected to the internet—has unlocked a whole new realm of opportunities in technical feasibility and cost efficiency. Coming soon, Bluetooth 5 will set the stage for the future for deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) people as well as hearing people.

Technological advancement in the semiconductor technology has brought us the digital hearing aids and cochlear implants that have helped DHH children to hear more than was possible previously with analog hearing aids. The power of computing/networking power also has paved the way for them to use texting and video as part of their communication in everyday life.  The future of the hearing aids and cochlear implants, as assistive communication technologies for DHH people, will take greater advantage of wireless technology, digital chip technology, hearing science, and cognitive science (see the “The Future of Hearing Aid Technology” available online from NIH).

Another type of communication technology is alternative/augmentative communication technologies (AAC). ACC is a general term that includes communication methods used by individuals who are challenged in the production or reception of spoken or written language.  As an example, DHH consumers appreciate the widespread availability of captioning on television, movies, and internet videos. Video Relay services (VRS), funded by the FCC, are commonly used by deaf individuals for communicating with hearing people through the equivalent function of “tele-phone.”

What we don’t know

Will the hearing aid/cochlear implants industry adopt new alternative/augmentative communication technologies built into assistive devices?  Will we have hearings that have WiFi capability that allows the person to hear the voice or sound directly from the voice-controlled devices without sound traveling through the air?

Will the industry allow their assistive devices take advantage of “cognitive computing” (self-learning systems that simulate human thinking) through the cloud? This approach would allow cognitive computing to adjust speech transmission in real-time environments.  This would allow, for example, speech with an accent to be fed into cognitive computers and filtered into a clearer, preferred speech sound before it is received by hearing aid users.

Due to demand for voice-controlled devices, will Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) with cognitive computing become widely used for providing captioning capability to DHH students in the classroom or even for socializing with hearing peers? Will the Automatic Sign Language Recognition (ASLR), still in the early development stages of video camera and cognitive computing technologies, be able to translate American Sign Language and other signed languages into spoken language and vice versa?

Implications

The technologies of assistive communication and alternative/augmentative communication will continue to advance. The goal is to take advantage of new technologies and apply them in ways to improve the communication between DHH people and hearing people. The challenge is to convince industry to open or expand the functionality beyond the current assistive communication and alternative/augmentative communication devices.

Another challenge will be integrating functions of augmentative communication with assistive communication devices.  As an example, the appliances, smoke detectors, and doorbells that have IoT built-in, will be able to send WiFi-based notifications to hearing aids rather than through sound, so the person does not have to be close-by in order to hear it. Applications in education are limited only by our imaginations (and the willingness of industry to participate).

Posted on July 10, 2017 by
Gary W. Behm
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
gwbnts {at} rit.edu

 

Further reading