Getting it right for hearing
Getting it right for hearing

Pippa Highfield shown looking at her laptop

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.

For:

  • Integrated with video calling software
  • Free
  • Easy to switch on
  • Works if you are streaming sound through an assistive listener (isolated sound)

Against:

  • 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!)

For:

  • Good level of accuracy
  • Free (up to 600 minutes on Otter.ai)
  • Easy to set up

Against:

  • 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:

  1. Dial into your Zoom call by phone so audio goes direct from phone to hearing aid. Phone on mute
  2. 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
  3. 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.

For:

  • Good level of accuracy
  • Integrated so can be used when streaming audio into hearing aids

Against:


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!

Watch our video: Using phone & video calls to deliver health & care support

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8 responses to “Subtitles for video calls – searching for the Holy Grail”

  1. Hi, this is a great article! I just wonder if the person hosting the zoom meeting needs the paid account to get the subtitles on the same screen, or if it’s the participant?

    Microsoft team also has automated subtitles,
    I suspect they’re very similar to the Skype ones. It doesn’t differentiate between person speaking and not always accurate but can be slightly helpful in addition to seeing and hearing the person speaking

    • Thanks for your comment Jadie. Only the person hosting the meeting needs the paid version of the STT app ie Otter.ai Teams. I’m not sure on the position regarding the paid version of Zoom I’m afraid; logically, I’d guess it will be the same i.e. it’s just the person hosting that needs the upgraded version. I’ve tried to get in touch with Zoom customer service to clarify, but no response so far unfortunately.

      Thanks for the info on Microsoft Teams – subtitles seem only to be available on the desktop version of Teams so I haven’t been able to test that myself.

      Best wishes, Pippa

  2. I set up Skype with subtitles for my mother after extensively testing it between my wife and I all using iPads. It seemed to have two main bugs. Sometimes the voice sound was very poor even unintelligible. Sometimes it would say starting subtitles but never start them. For both I found that turning subtitles off and on again solved this accessing this menu via the three dots at the bottom left of the video call. We also found it was necessary to turn on subtitles for all participants to avoid other issues.

    What we have not tested yet is using Skype for voice calls to landlines as it should give subtitles for just a voice call. This would help my mum call the doctors or chemist etc.

    • Hi Michael,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences of Skype. I’m pleased that you’ve found a solution that works for you. We’d be really interested to hear how you get on with voice calls via Skype – that certainly would be very helpful for many of us. Please stay in touch.
      Best wishes, Pippa

  3. My brother and I have just tried Google Meet in preparation for introducing it to my Dad, who’s 87, and almost completely deaf. We were VERY impressed. Definitely worth a try, in my opinion 🙂

    • Thanks Mandy. Pippa and I have been testing Google Meet as well. The quality of the subtitles was pretty good on our calls – and the size of the text was far better than on Skype. The placement of the subtitles though seems a bit awkward because the tool bar covers over it e.g. to switch mute on/off. Also, on a couple of the calls Pippa and I had, the audio wasn’t very good – but that could have just been the usual randomness of internet not always being great. Hope your Dad gets on well with it. We’d love to know how he finds it. Best wishes, Sally & Pippa

  4. Hi Pippa and Sally,
    Thanks for this article, reposted in Deafness Forum Australia’s latest ‘One in Six’ online mag. We discovered Gmeet weeks ago and I have been impressed.

    I work with a group teaching Lipread ing and Auslan (Oz Sign Language. sim. to BSL etc) and we had already found that the live speech to text translatio0n on one’s iPhone or Android phone was invaluable. We then found that leaving our iPad (in Notes mode, and with the text-to-speech mike active) next to a profoundly deaf member of our group meant that she could both lip-read AND read the spoken words of our class. She said it was one of th best days of her life to find that out!

    So when we were forced online, and found Zoom didn’t do the captioning job, I was thrilled to see Google Meet had free live captioning. You are right its placement isn’t perfect but its a whole lot better than none! Audio quality seems to vary no matter which video chat tool we are using, btw.

    Cleverly Gmeet somehow manages to pick up the name of the speaker from their login, and everyone gets their speech on the screen with – we thought – remarkably little delay. At that price I haven’t even tried any of the other solutions in class… but I usually complain delicately when I have to use other tools at online meetings… At least I hope I’m not TOO delicate, as the alternative is not good enough.
    Cheers, Barney

    • Hi Barney,
      Great that you were able to share this article further. Interesting what you say about Google Meet. I’ve now used it for 4 video calls and each time I have experience a weird/unpleasant echo and underwater sound. I don’t get this with other video platforms. I will continue to test it to see if the issue persists – hope not because I find the subtitle size is so much easier than that used on Skype.
      If you do try other speech recognition apps in your class (e.g. Live Transcribe, Otter.ai, I can’t hear), can you let us know how you get on?
      Best wishes, Sally

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