Pippa Highfield, of Ideas for Ears, is hunting for the holy grail of easy, accurate subtitles for video calls
“I want videos calls with live subtitles, so I can read as well as listen to what’s said.”
Update notes: The journey to find the best captions for video calls continues! Pippa has made some additional notes throughout this post as she has discovered new information and workarounds. We’d encourage you to adds your comments as well, to help us on the journey.
Everyone is facing new challenges in these unprecedented times. As a person with hearing loss, I am finding this fact has its benefits as well as its trials. I’ve noticed a very welcome desire for my family, friends and colleagues to embrace video calling.
My hearing loss is such that I really struggle to use the ‘phone, so the advent of Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, and all the other audio-visual means of communication, are a real life-saver.
Nothing is perfect of course, and using video calling throws up all sorts technical, acoustic and human issues for those of us who have hearing loss, and probably for those that don’t too!
Although I’ve often found the sound quality is better over the internet than down a ‘phone line, a poor internet connection can lead to the sound being out of sync with the other person’s speech, which is a real issue when you watch lip-shape and mouth movement to help you grasp what’s being said.
On top of that, background noise or poor microphone quality can render the sound unintelligible – the one thing you really do need when you have hearing loss is sound clarity. Anything that impacts on that is a problem.
Over the last few days and weeks, I’ve been in search of the holy grail that would make video calling easier for those of us with hearing loss – live subtitles.
I’m not techie – but I’ve found 3 ways to get subtitles on video calls
First off, let me say that I’m not a techie person so I have been looking for the simplest way to subtitle my video calls, using the basic knowledge and equipment that I have to hand.
Here are three workarounds that I have come up with so far. There may be many others, and some might be rather more sophisticated than my humble attempts, but I’m putting them out there in good faith. Please use the comment box to give your thoughts and to share your own workarounds – we can help each other through this crisis.
1) Skype – simple, but not very accurate
Skype has an integrated facility to switch on subtitles so is the most straight forward option. Simply download Skype to your device and go into ‘settings’ to switch on the subtitle facility. Here’s a link to support from Skype.
- Integrated with video calling software
- Easy to switch on
- Works if you are streaming sound through an assistive listener (isolated sound)
- Poor accuracy
- Placement of subtitles poor and can obscure the speakers face
- Doesn’t recognise different speakers very well which means you have to speak slowly and leave pauses between sentences otherwise all the text runs together
Update note (5 May 2020): Skype has recently improved their captioning facility so that it now identifies different speakers and allows you to move the position of the subtitles to the side of the screen. There seems to have been a slight improvement in accuracy too, though the time lag is still fairly long and the subtitles are so tiny that I find myself peering at the screen!
2) Zoom with Otter.ai – clunky, but good accuracy
By using two devices, say a laptop and a smart phone, you can create your own free to use subtitles with any type of video calling. Here I used Zoom on my laptop and Otter.ai on my iphone; by simply putting my phone near the laptop speaker the Zoom conversation is subtitled on my phone.
This workaround should also work with Facetime, WhatsApp, Messenger video calls, Skype and indeed any video calling facility as long as the audio output is good. (I haven’t tried that yet) It’s cumbersome, and takes a bit of ‘juggling’, but I find that the accuracy is good.
If you are able to download Zoom and Otter onto the same device and open the windows next to each other, the whole set up is even better.
The major downside is that if, like me, you need to stream the audio direct to your hearing aids, unfortunately this won’t work for you (unless you know a way to disable the sound isolation…in which case I’d like to hear about that!)
- Good level of accuracy
- Free (up to 600 minutes on Otter.ai)
- Easy to set up
- Not integrated so you need two devices or open two windows on one compatible device
- Cumbersome to use
- Doesn’t work if you are streaming audio direct to your hearing aids and device sound is isolated.
Update note (5 May 2020): Otter have appraised me of an option that allows you to use an assistive listener streaming directly to your hearing aids. Here’s what they say:
- Dial into your Zoom call by phone so audio goes direct from phone to hearing aid. Phone on mute
- Dial in via laptop and have it on computer sound for it to work with Otter.ai web version on the same laptop to do the transcribing
- When you want to say something on the call do not unmute your phone; unmute your Zoom on your laptop and speak into your laptop microphone
I have to admit that I haven’t been brave enough to try that option yet as it sounds more than a little confusing. But thanks to Otter.ai for at least trying to find a workable, free solution.
Apple.com have information on Otter for iPhone – You can see it here
There is also an android version – here
Here’s the link to reach the Zoom website.
NOTE: A really important point here is that the Otter app records the conversation so you must get permission from all participants to use this workaround.
3) Zoom Pro, Business & Enterprise with Otter.ai Teams
If you are willing and able to upgrade to a paid version of Zoom and Otter then you can get all the benefits of the Otter speech to text app integrated into Zoom which, in theory, should give you a better result than Skype. I haven’t been able to test this yet but I have emailed Zoom to check exactly how it works. I’ll add an update comment when I have more detail.
I should note that I haven’t tried this myself but, I have used Zoom and Otter.ai independently so I would imagine the results would be good.
- Good level of accuracy
- Integrated so can be used when streaming audio into hearing aids
Update note of 5 May: and here are 2 more options …
4) Microsoft Teams
I finally found the captioning option on Teams with the help of a, very lengthy, online chat with Microsoft Support. But what none of the documentation tells you is that captioning isn’t available on the free version of Teams. You will either need to upgrade your Microsoft 365 package to a business version (which included Teams) or buy a Teams add-on. In addition, both parties need the premium version of Teams, unlike Zoom and Otter where only the host needs the paid for version.
Here are the instructions
5) Google Meet / Hang-out
We’ve seen it reported that Google Meet is offering free captions as part of their video calling package. It seems that all you need to access Google Meet is a gmail address. We’ll try to test this very soon and, if you have found it useful, or otherwise, please do share your experiences in the comments box below.
Let us know how you get on
The Ideas for Ears team hopes this post has inspired you to give video calling with subtitles a try. As with anything new, you need to get used to video-calling with subtitles, and so does the person talking to you – so persevere, laugh about the inaccuracies that subtitles often throw up, and look upon it as a learning experience
Remember that different devices, apps, internet connections etc make for a different experience, so what works for you with one family member or colleague may not work with another. Experiment until you find what’s best for different situations.
Try not to get too down-hearted if it doesn’t work all the time, technology, like everything right now, is unpredictable – but stick with it!