Monday, November 3, 2008

Captioned radio


No, this isn't a joke, like Playboy for the Blind.

And it isn't the giant forward step of closed captions for streaming news videos that many frustrated deaf and hearing impaired people like me would like to see on the Web. (For an example of captioned streaming video, click here, but if you're a Republican, you'd better have a sense of humor.)

But captioned radio is a step forward.

You've heard about HD digital radio and maybe how it works. Instead of sending out one analog signal, radio stations send out a bundled signal – both analog and digital. Because the signal is digital, textual data such as traffic, stock information and song titles can be sent out as well. HD digital broadcasts are much less staticky, too, with reduced hiss, pops and fades.

It's the textual data stream that will provide real-time captioning of radio broadcasts on HD digital radio receivers equipped with a display screen to show the captions. A few lines of bright text will scroll up on a dark screen in near sync with the spoken audio, hopefully just a couple of seconds behind. In short, a more or less instant transcript.

So far such sets aren't yet on the market, because existing display screens need too much battery power. But the problem's being worked on, and those in the know say new receivers should be available in a couple of years.

Tomorrow night you can see a demonstration of this technology -- on your computer, not your digital radio -- for National Public Radio says it is going to caption its digital election returns broadcast and demonstrate it on the Web.

I haven't yet been able to pin down the exact URL, but with luck the NPR web site will have a link to that on its home page. According to this press release, so will the web site of the Harris Corp., a communications company. [Later Monday: The Harris Corp. PR guy says the home pages of both sites will carry links to the broadcast tomorrow night, presumably when the broadcast goes live. And the NPR PR rep says it'll be on air from 8 pm to 11 pm EST.]

NPR will also broadcast the captioned HD signal to four of its stations (Washington, Denver, Boston, Baltimore), where special receivers will show the captions to private audiences (of local deaf people, I presume).

Let's hope it all works on the Web. Otherwise I'll just watch Election Night on Fox News merely to enjoy the anchors' long faces.

[I don't know how the demonstration worked for others, but it didn't work for me. Not for half an hour did I discover that the scheme was PC-only, sorry Mac owners; thanks, NPR and Harris, for not letting us know. I did use the Windows XP side of my MacBook and got the captions with Windows Media Player, but they were slow and terribly disjointed, as if only half the lines of text made it through. Of course this was an early-days demonstration, but . . .]

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