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11/30/2004 - CopyCat Ready for VPnet

Collaboration. Cooperation. VPnet (virtual possibilities network) was born of collaboration and cooperation --- collaboration between universities, colleges, and K-12 Schools, and cooperation between sometimes competitive industries. CopyCat Captioning, one of the first VPnet research and development projects, exemplifies that collaboration and cooperation.

The CopyCat principals are John and Barbara Gale. John Gale wears two hats for captioning. In addition to CopyCat, he is an Assistive Technology Specialist at the Spokane Schools, where he wrote and administers a $200,000 Department of Education earmark grant for technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. This grant includes captioning research and development. Barbara Gale also works at DSHS.

Their university technology partner is Margaret Mortz, PhD, of Washington State University Spokane. During the academic fall quarter, the CopyCat project has been working with an Eastern Washington University graduate software engineering class taught by Dr. Steve Simmons of EWU computer science.

CopyCat’s mission is to help people with disabilities --- hearing disabilities, vision disabilities, mobility impairments, and stamina challenges. Their initial thrust is to develop and perfect technology to help those with hearing disabilities through fast and accurate real-time captioning. First efforts will be in classrooms at all levels, then ultimately in every Internet-accessible environment. As the technology is perfected, it will also spawn economic development due to the ongoing need for human operators to assist the technology.

The Gales started CopyCat and the captioning projects about two year’s ago. Last summer WSU, as the university host, and Mortz as principal investigator, received an NWACC (Northwest Academic Computing Consortium, www.nwacc.org ) $10000 grant to further the project. The Spokane schools project actively collaborates with WSU and the NWACC grant project, and Spokane schools has contributed all of the hardware used for the project. Since last summer, the project has made great strides.

CopyCat captioning system has few basic requirements. It must be fast --- five-second latency is the slowest acceptable time. It must be accurate. It must be affordable.

Their system is straight forward. In the classroom, the teacher or lecturer is wired for sound. The audio pickup system can be a simple lapel microphone, a cell phone, a regular telephone, or any of a number of more expensive and sophisticated systems.

The audio is transmitted via wireless technology, telephone wire, or through network Internet Protocols (IP) to a human operator called a “revoicer”. CopyCat uses Dragon voice recognition software because it is easier to edit and correct than other currently available voice recognition software. ASR (automatic speech recognition) software is far from the level of the Star Trek computer. The ASR must be trained and will usually understand only a specific voice --- and if that specific voice is altered by anything from stress to a head cold, the ASR won't understand and will slow to a crawl.

The idiosyncrasies of the voice recognition software require that the lecturer be “revoiced”. This means that the person whose voice the ASR recognizes must repeat the words of the lecturer to the ASR --- much the same way a simultaneous translator works at the United Nations. The person who “revoices” can be anywhere that has a high speed connection. They may be in the next room, or they may be at a VPnet node at SIRTI while the class is being held at the VPnet node at Whitworth.

The ASR writes the initial text display. That text then goes to a human operated editing computer. At this time, CopyCat is using a Macromedia Flashcom Server for its shared text, voice writer, editor and client display. The “editor-on-the-fly” corrects the text and sends it on to the client display.

In a classroom situation, the Client Display is projected on a screen placed so that it can be easily read. Other possibilities for client display include regular computer screens connected through the Internet, PDA’s, cell phone displays, dynamic Braille machines, LED displays, and wearable displays.

The next phase of the CopyCat research will use VPnet to test the ease of working at a distance for the “revoicer”, and the editor. Proof of this concept will open the door to classroom captioning at all schools with high speed connections like those at both District 81 and in the Mead School District. It will also provide jobs for “revoicers” and text “editors-on-the-fly.”

Billie Moreland
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