- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

The next big advance in telecommunications may be a silent one. Widespread access to technology known as real-time text is likely on the way, largely as a result of the deaf community’s petitions for increased accessibility.

Real-time text allows users at each end of a conversation to see each character as it is typed, even before they hit the “send” button. It would allow users to integrate text into their voice conversations, allowing them to type out addresses and names that are otherwise tricky to communicate.

“I think that we’ll actually see situations where people are talking and typing at the same time,” said Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Every new phone will support real-time text if the federal agency that oversees accessibility for the disabled - the U.S. Access Board - adopts new regulations. And that is a move it is likely to make within the next few years, according to Mr. Vanderheiden.

The implications of real-time text on every phone are numerous, Mr. Vanderheiden said. Deaf people could use any phone to instantaneously communicate with any other phone, an ability that is especially important during emergency and catastrophic situations.

Though some 911 call centers are experimenting with emergency instant messages, they do not transmit until the user presses “send.” With real-time text, a deaf person could type “I am having a heart attac,” and even if the message remains incomplete, 911 would receive the characters.

Mr. Vanderheiden also predicted the hearing world would enthusiastically adopt real-time text, as it did captions for television, another initiative first championed by the deaf. Hearing users could use real-time text to supplement voice conversations or to completely replace voice in noisy environments.

Mr. Vanderheiden spoke last week before an audience of deaf, hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind and hearing individuals at the biennial Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI) conference in Washington.

Steve Brenner, a 72-year-old deaf Maryland resident, attended the conference presentation on real-time text.

“I think it’s fantastic. It’s really a revolution,” he said. “We’ll never be falling behind the hearing world. … It blew my mind when they gave the presentation.”

AOL Instant Messenger already incorporates real-time text, as do a handful of products geared specifically to the deaf. Google Wave, set to debut this year, has real-time text on steroids, Mr. Vanderheiden said. The e-mail, instant messaging and wiki hybrid lets people create a document together through instantaneous, simultaneous editing.

Claude Stout, executive director of TDI, said telecoms generally support new standards for accessibility and have a real desire to meet the needs of the deaf, though they seek out the most inexpensive way to do that.

Mr. Stout also praised real-time text for more closely resembling actual conversation than instant messaging. He also said it would serve as a bridge between the deaf and hearing communities.

“It will place us more on a level playing field,” he said.

Mr. Vanderheiden agreed.

“The nice thing about text is the universal nature of it,” he said.

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