Sorenson Communications has announced two products that will help deaf people who sign to communicate with their deaf and hearing friends on the go. The products, ntouch PC and ntouch Mobile, turn laptops and cellphones into videophones with the same Video Relay Service technology now used by deaf individuals to place calls.
With Video Relay, a deaf caller can face the video screen and sign a conversation to a hearing operator who also knows sign language, who “relays” the information verbally to the hearing caller and vice versa. Sorenson’s hope is that calllers will be freed from having to sit at home using their proprietary videophone, VP-200, to make calls.
Sorenson has a lot to gain from ntouch. As the largest provider of video relay services, Sorenson reaps funds from the government to provide video relay services. The Federal Communications Commission requires equal access to telecommunications technology for people with disabilities, and reimburses Sorenson — the funds come from a telecommuncations tax levied on consumers.
Still, with more smartphone apps turning mobile devices into video cameras, Sorenson has some stiff competition. Take FaceTime, an iPhone app that lets two deaf callers who have an iPhone 4 communicate in sign to one another, without the use of a relay operator. If they need assistance, they can dial up ZVRS, a company that Apple has partnered with to provide video relay services. Sorenson’s ntouch is a software program and won’t work on the iPhone; instead it is compatible with the Android mobile HTC EVO phone on the Sprint network, with features that include e911 and myRumble, which lets users set special vibration and flash patterns for different callers.
Also, Sorenson competitor Purple Communications, recently launched ClearCaptions, a free real-time telephone captioning service for laptops and mobile phones. ClearCaptions also relies on an relay operator who lives behind the scenes, translating a person’s verbal conversation into text on-screen so the deaf or hard of hearing person can read it in real-time. Still, this service makes mistakes — it’s only human, after all.
Sprint’s WebCapTel offers a similar service to ClearCaptions, but neither are video-based, which is key for those who prefer to converse in their native sign language. However, to acquire the ntouch software you must first qualify as a deaf or hard of hearing individual who uses American Sign Language, and purchase the HTC EVO phone with a Sprint data plan. And with the myriads of other ways that deaf people can communicate, including Skype, email and text, is ntouch worth taking on the burden?
For those who are loyal to Sorenson’s services, however, the new ntouch services will indeed give callers more freedom. It’s just too bad that ntouch doesn’t have any flexibility to work on different platforms or devices, though the company says deals with more mobile providers are coming soon.
Related article: Deaf Get Mobile Relay with iPhone’s FaceTime App
Related article: Purple Launches Real-Time Phone Captions Service