Nine years ago, at a hearing loss convention in Providence, RI, immigrant angel investor and entrepreneur Joe Duarte came across a new technology for captioning phone calls. “It was the best I had ever seen,” he said.
Joe, who received his first hearing aid at age four, has spent years on the hunt for innovative hearing technologies. He left his job at IBM’s sonar acoustics engineering department to launch his own business, called Duartek. Its work focuses on hearing loops, devices designed to filter out background noise for hearing aid users. But Duarte kept looking for an effective solution to the phone call accessibility issue.
He used his daughter, Cristina, as a guinea pig to test technology when he attended exhibits. “He would always call me and say: ‘Hey, I am trying something,” says Cristina Duarte. Most solutions have been painfully slow with converting audio to text, so it took a while for Joe to respond. But this time was different.
“I remember that phone call like it was yesterday, and that was honestly the first time I had ever spoken to my father like he was hearing,” Cristina Duarte recalls. “It was incredible: I’d try to talk faster, and he was still understanding me. I remember saying: “You need this, this is amazing!”
From idea to launch
InnoCaption, the service that caught Joe’s attention, was started by Joseph Lee in 2007. Lee grew up in post-war South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. After working for telecommunications giants like Samsung, Qualcomm, and Pantech, he decided to launch his own business. But it took five more years of R&D to develop the prototype for his mobile app.
Finally, in 2012, Lee showcased his prototype at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) Convention, where it was discovered by Joe Duarte. “I wanted to help get this service launched in any way I could,” he says.
According to Duarte, InnoCaption was at least 10 years ahead of all existing telephone captioning technologies available at the time. Duarte joined the company as an angel investor and, later, as co-CEO. The service currently has 10,000 users and raised approximately $2 million in funding prior to launching in 2016.
Captions with an accent
The speed of services provided for deaf and hard-of-hearing people has improved significantly since the app was launched. “With 3G, sending data through mobile internet was slow,” Lee says. But since 4G was adopted more widely, sending audio has become much faster and easier.
InnoCaption currently offers real-time captioning of phone calls, using both automated speech recognition and live stenographers. The latter feature is especially helpful if the person on the other end of the line speaks with an accent, since most software programs still struggle to transcribe accented English.
“The technology works well for native speakers of English, but for people with accents we’re using stenographers,” Duarte says. Users can choose to switch to a stenographer if the captions are not coming through correctly with speech recognition.
A huge change
For the 48 million Americans with hearing loss, COVID-19 brought even more challenges. The demand for reliable communication services skyrocketed. As a result, in 2020 InnoCaption has seen a 65 percent increase in active users. Some people have been using the app with video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, allowing for third-party captioning.
“The mobile landscape is changing,” observes Lee. “I believe eventually our users will be able to see captions on some kind of glasses or other mobile devices.” Lee is expecting “a huge change” in mobile technology for hearing loss within the next five years.
Accommodating different languages, removing barriers, including difficulties with accent transcription, and improving the accuracy of speech recognition would be the next steps for the app, believes Duarte. “Accuracy is incredibly important in the medical field, when you talk to doctors about prescriptions and medical information,” he adds.
InnoCaption is currently available in English and Spanish, with other languages in the testing phase. Duarte hopes one day his app could help him communicate in his native language, Portuguese.