Thursday, May 15, 2014

Setting up good audio from a group luncheon for remote CART

Recently, I was asked for advice about how to deal with a particularly challenging listening situation. I thought I'd share my thinking publicly and to see if anyone might be able to offer additional suggestions. Here's the situation: A man with profound hearing loss who functions at a very high level professionally would like to be able to participate in weekly lunch gatherings with 11 friends. They use a long table in a quiet room. He is willing to pay for remote CART (Computer Assisted Realtime Translation), which could presumably be displayed on a smartphone, tablet, or other wireless device. The main question is: how could the CART writer obtain access to the conversation without a complex and intrusive microphone set-up? Such group conversations are among the most challenging situations for oral people with hearing loss. Due to numerous factors involved, which I'll describe below, I don't think there is an easy, elegant solution available at this time, although I do see some strategies to make this work. Ideally, it needs to be fairly easy for everyone to participate in the group conversation, so it would be ideal for the microphone(s) required by the remote CART provider to be close enough for people to speak into. A remote CART provider typically cannot see who is speaking and will depend greatly on the quality of the microphone(s) and of the clarity of the audio signal going into the microphone(s). When human speakers are far away from a single microphone, the mike generally cannot capture their speech well enough. Even a room that might be described as quiet generally still has some reverberation and background noise in it, and those factors will reduce the critical distance of the microphone within which the microphone can capture sound well. A single omnidirectional microphone, even if it is a pressure zone "conference" microphone, will either pick up too much background noise or will not be able to capture distant speech sounds well. (I have used remote CART providers in different situations, and I've personally seen the CART output fail when the CART provider cannot hear clearly enough due to people being too far away from the mike, even when two pressure zone microphones were used.) Another factor to consider is that typically, at a long table used for a meal, there are frequently several conversations happening at least some of the time. A static microphone system designed to pick up everyone's voices is probably not going to provide clear enough audio for a CART provider to work with. The user of the CART will thus need to determine who he wants to be transcribed, and only the sound of the desired speaker should be sent through to the CART provider. When everyone is sitting down eating lunch, however, it would be difficult for him to control directly whose voice is getting transmitted to the CART provider. One option might be to ask someone outside of the group, like a relative or friend of the user, to be a dedicated communication facilitator whose function is to bring a microphone to the person whose speech needs to be transcribed. Another possibility might be for various members of the group to be asked to listen to the sound being captured by the mike(s), using an assistive listening system with multiple receivers or an audio loop system, so that they can help bring a microphone to the desired speaker and ensure the quality of the audio. (Since hearing loss starts to become very common among men as they age, some members of the group may personally benefit from using an assistive listening system anyway. However, all users of the system would be listening to the same conversation.) Let's look further at how the primary person with hearing loss could best be situated at the table. A person who cannot hear well generally benefits from using other strategies to gather as much information as possible about what is going on in the environment, like seeing who is talking and seeing who is coming into the room. I think it's generally more practical for someone who is functionally deaf to sit at one end of a rectangular table (when that is what's being used) so that he can see everyone within his line of sight and then see more quickly who is talking. With a total of 12 people at the table, five people would be sitting on each long side. The CART user might control one (directional) microphone himself but it could be possible to set up one other microphone with a long cable (or connected to an extension cable) that might be located near the other end of the table. Ideally, the microphones would have an easy-to-operate push-button switch so that undesired sound isn't being transmitted. If the primary user with hearing loss still has some residual hearing, I would recommend that he be equipped to monitor the sound as it is sent to the remote CART provider to ensure the best signal is coming through so that he can quickly make adjustments. The enlisted communication facilitator(s) also need(s) to monitor the quality of the audio signal to make sure that the CART provider can hear well enough to perform the transcription. Then, a splitter from the microphone system can be used to send the signal to both an assistive listening system for the local users and to the microphone or line input jack of the wireless device that is relaying the sound to the remote CART provider. The more that people who are present in the conversation can directly perceive the quality of sound that is going to the CART provider (or the person with hearing loss), the better empowered they will be to troubleshoot any audio problems quickly and effectively. If it's possible to facilitate the participation of a person with hearing loss in a group conversation that feels significant to that person, I believe it's worth it to work these things out. The easier it is for everyone to use the microphone system, the more successful this will be. I would recommend trying out a microphone setup, perhaps at a convenient location such as the primary user's home, and working out the kinks in stages *before* trying to work with the CART provider. Once the system works out for the local people, check whether a remote listener can hear through the microphone setup via a microphone or line input on the Internet-enabled computer, and make sure everything is working well. (Note: the computer needs to be set up properly so that any built-in microphone on the computer is *not* active. Only the external microphone system should be sending through sound via the computer.) In the past, I knew of some assistive listening systems that had had built-in microphone mixing (such as a Multi-Talker system from, but to my knowledge, they are no longer being produced. If anyone reading this blog knows of microphone or assistive listening solutions that would be useful for a situation like this, please share what you know! And/or if you have other thoughts about what might work, please share those as well. (In the future, video glasses like Google Glasses could be useful for this purpose. The primary user could wear the glasses and send video the CART provider, and could also read the captions on the glasses. Google Glasses are not yet available to the general public, however.) (Copyrighted by Dana Mulvany)

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