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FCC announces video calling platform for sign language users

The Federal Communications Commission is backing development of a platform that it hopes will help make communicating easier for the deaf and hard of hearing. At a Thursday keynote for the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI) Conference, FCC chair Tom Wheeler announced a program he calls Accessible Communications for Everyone, or ACE. According to Wheeler's presentation, ACE's goal is to create a core set of apps that can link existing text and video services for hearing- or speech-impaired users, or connect those users directly to company or government offices' American Sign Language support lines. And the platform itself will be open source, opening the door to more creative uses over time.

The FCC already funds companies that help people with hearing or speech disabilities communicate with others. In text-based Telecommunications Relay Service, or TRS, a human operator reads typed text from a caller, then transcribes the response in return. Video Relay Service lets users place a video call — using a webcam or dedicated videophone hardware — with a sign language interpreter, who calls the other party and acts as an intermediary.

The open-source platform will include standards for existing relay services

Wheeler says that rather than replacing the existing systems, ACE is partly supposed to make sure that different VRS providers' products can work together, establishing a set of interoperability standards. "VRS has remained a closed system, with callers unable to call to videophones outside the system and unable to receive video calls from individuals not on the 'VRS network,'" he says. "It’s time for you to be able to have your video products work together, so you can call whomever you wish, whenever you wish, from anywhere." But the software will also allow direct calls to organizations that have their own ASL translators. The FCC opened an ASL support line last year, and the Census Bureau and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission plan to follow suit. Having readily available software could make it easier for other agencies to adopt them.

Until yesterday, ACE was known as the "Video Access Technology Reference Platform," or VATRP. It's an FCC-backed collaboration between Gallaudet University, the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technology Institute of the Deaf, and two calling and interpretation companies. According to an FAQ, the reference platform will include iOS, Mac OS X, Android, and Windows apps, which can be used or adapted for free by anyone. Existing relay services can adopt it as an interface, or software designers could connect it to other tools.

Wheeler, for example, describes a student project that could connect smart appliances to the platform, transmitting alerts when a washing machine is finished or a tap is left running. Another adaptation would let deaf-blind users send a picture to a call center and get a description in Braille.

According to a White House statement last month, a version of the platform should be released in May of 2016.