Can you subtitle the world in real time?

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The French engineer Thibault Duchemin has invented an app which converts voice to text in real time to foster their inclusion in conversations.

Many hearing impaired learn to read lips to guarantee their ability to interact with people who do not speak sign language. Group conversations, however, are another matter entirely. Rapid-fire dialogues, overlapping voices and people who forget to keep their mouth within the line of sight are obstacles which a hearing impaired person cannot overcome alone. These obstacles affect 360 million people worldwide, or, in other words, approximately 5% of the global population.

Thibault Duchemin has been well aware of this from birth, as the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family. His role as his sister´s translator was interrupted when Duchemin moved to the United States to obtain a Master´s degree in engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He could no longer interpret conversations for her; he was too far away to help. So he decided to create something which his sister, and anyone with hearing problems, could carry with them wherever they went: Ava, an app which transcribes, in real time, the conversations which surround us.

Optimized for group conversations, the app transcribes all of the interventions while identifying each speaker with a different color to help the user follow what is being said, and by whom. The only prerequisites: the app must be downloaded to each participant´s smartphone, which must capture the participant´s voice. The hearing impaired participant can then invite the participants to join a chat session, and the transcription begins in real time. The fact that the solution depends solely on access to a smartphone makes it highly affordable and accessible: in Europe, for every 100 people, 78 own a smartphone; in Latin America, 55% of the population has one. Meetings, classes and any variety of conversation, whether amongst friends or at the supermarket, are just some of the potential applications.

To develop his project, Duchemin raised two million euros (approximately 2.4 million dollars) in a seed capital financing round in San Francisco (US), allowing him to launch Ava in November of 2016. Since then, more than 50,000 people in the United States and France have used the app to improve their lives and gain access to the same communication opportunities as any other citizen, student or worker.

Duchemin, who was recognized as one of MIT Technology Review, Spanish edition´s  Innovators Under 35 Europe 2017, compares the communication barriers faced by the deaf and hearing impaired to the divide between languages as dissimilar as Spanish and Chinese. His next steps are to raise more financing in order to expand the app to other European countries and further develop the tool to support more languages. Through Ava, the engineer wants to guarantee that no one need miss a single line of the best screenplay of all: life itself.

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