Sunday, January 6, 2013


A few days ago a CaptionCall came to my house. Will it become another electronic life enhancer for me? Quite possibly.

Designed for deaf and hearing-impaired people who can speak clearly enough to be understood on the other end of the line, the CaptionCall works very simply. The first party speaks into the handset and reads the second party's reply on the unit's large screen. The second party's spoken words are converted into text by means of speech recognition software and the help of a live "communications assistant" at the CaptionCall company's local office.

The communications assistant, who is sworn to secrecy (or something like that), monitors the other party's responses, stepping in to correct mistranslations on the fly. Speech recognition software still can make mistakes, rendering "Hallelujah!" into "I alluded," for example. Human intervention is still needed when context doesn't make things clear.

Among the interesting features are Caller ID, message reviewing after the call ends, message saving into memory, and a contact list for speed-dialing. One feature that has great potential for me is the ability to convert either voicemail or answering-machine messages into text. All I need to do is hold the handset up to the base of our separate Panasonic digital phone with answerer, press a button, and in a few seconds I can read the message.

In the past, when the Lady Friend's plane was delayed, she'd phone her sister or one of our sons with a new ETA, and the sister or son would send me an email with same. (Yes, she could send a text message directly, but that's pretty clumsy on the cell phone she has.) Now all she has to do is call home and, if I don't answer the phone immediately, she can leave a message on the answerer, and I'll get to it by and by.

The usefulness of the CaptionCall, it seems to me, will be greatest in communicating with family and friends. I can prepare them ahead of time for the drawbacks of this technology.

There is an unavoidable delay between the time the second party speaks and the words are converted into text by the computer at the CaptionCall office. People tend to pause between the phrases they speak, and these pauses can be misunderstood by the first party. Has the second party finished speaking, or is he just taking a breath? As a result, both parties sometimes speak over each other, confusing matters.

With time, the first party might get better at interpreting the length of the pauses (indicated by "." and ". . ." in the text).

At present I wouldn't try to use the CaptionCall for important business calls unless the second party can be prepared ahead of time. If I wanted to order a pizza, for example, I could explain on the fly what's going on to the other party, but it'll be rare that strangers will have the time, the understanding, or the patience to make the call work.

For some reason my particular CaptionCall unit won't show Caller ID. The unit might be defective, or perhaps the phone line in my 102-year-old house is flakey. (The Panasonic digital phone does show Caller ID just fine, so it's hard to tell.) CaptionCall and I are still working on a solution.

For all its glitches, the technology is advancing rapidly, and there's a good chance that in a couple of years these drawbacks can be minimized acceptably. The CaptionCall has been on the market only since late 2011. (For more information, go to

By the way, the CaptionCall unit is free to deaf and hearing-impaired users, and so are the calls themselves. The Federal Communications Commission pays CaptionCall by the call. There's absolutely no financial obligation for the deaf or hearing-impaired user.

I just hope the miserly Tea Party Republicans don't find out about it.

JANUARY 10: The Caller ID problem has been fixed. The phone jack in my office is faulty. Moving the kit and caboodle to another room solved the problem.

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