Hands-On: Radio for the deaf

February 12, 2008

By Bill Howard (PC Magazine)

TV has long had closed captioning. Why not radio? What sounds like an odd joke - radio for the deaf and hard of hearing - is close to reality thanks to a public-private consortium that will provide closed captioning on car LCD displays.

In a pre-CES demonstration, Harris Corp. described how the technology will work. But in a CES press conference, the partners talked about the agencies involved.

It will start with National Public Radio stations, one of the groups in the partnership, along with Harris Corp. and Towson University in Maryland, which will be headquarters to the new International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART). Both home and car radios are planned.

What's in it for deaf people? Cheryl Heppner, executive director of the North Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Person, who lost her hearing at 6, recalls driving with her husband, Fred, and wondering what made him laugh listening to the radio. With real time closed captions, she said, "I could know why ... Fred is always laughing so uproariously when he listens to Car Talk while driving." Or, she says, "I could annoy him by singing along, badly, to the lyrics of his favorite songs. I can't wait!"

A demonstration showed the morning NPR newscast with closed captions on a concept car dashboard created by Delphi. The center stack LCD panel is a dual-view display, meaning the passenger sees one view, while the driver would see another view - without any captioning material. The text appears a few seconds after the words were spoken on NPR, much as closed captioning on a sports or other televised event.

To make radio closed captioning happen, it requires new HD Radio chipsets from iBiquitity Digital, which should be available shortly, along with larger displays. A tabletop radio would be available first, probably this fall, from Radiosophy. Getting into a car would take longer because of automakers' longer lead times and also their reluctance to adopt the dual-view display pioneered by Sharp two years ago.

To get closed captioning, individual users with hearing impairments would have to sign up and get an unlock code sent to their radios. Congress granted a conditional access exemption from most copyright laws for the deaf, so they aren't in violation for receiving copyrighted material in a usable format. But they'd have to register their radios so they could be activated to receive text caption material. NPR doesn't see a copyright problem at its end except for issues such as whether a folksinger's lyrics could be sent.

Of NPR's 825 stations, 115 are up and running with HD Radio simulcasts and another 640 are in the process of converting. A station using HD Radio can broadcast its station in analog (what it always does), simulcast the station in digital, and broadcast a second program (or the same program in another language), along with additional text information such as the closed captioning. Traditional radio can provide only limited text - the radio data service, or RDS - but only station call letters, genre, and artist name and track information.