MEET THE DEVELOPER
Lend an Ear
How a son helped his dad make a life-changing accessibility app.
Tired of lipreading?
Gerald Isobe has worked for the Department of Defense in his home state of Hawaii for nearly four decades, in a supervisor role for over half that time. He was born deaf, and though he learned to lip-read, some days were a struggle: Lip reading has only a roughly 30 percent accuracy rate. Not all of Gerald’s colleagues knew American Sign Language, and there wasn’t always an ASL interpreter readily available at his office.
“For many years at work, I would be on my own every day and not be able to enter into a discussion with coworkers,” he says. “I relied on emails and interpreters.”
Gerald’s son, Brandon, remembers Gerald having a particularly hard time one day. “A lot of the meetings my dad takes are impromptu, like, ‘Can we talk?’” says Brandon. “He isn’t always able to get access to an interpreter last-minute.”
In his free time, Gerald and Brandon were developing an app, GolfBeats, which provides subtle vibrations to help golfers—deaf or not—increase the speed and consistency of their swings. But the father-son team also wanted to create an app that would help Gerald at work—something his coworkers could talk into and have their words scroll on the screen for him to read.
With the help of Caltech student Andres Gutierrez and after just three months of development, they were able to leverage the text-recognition engine built into iOS and release App MyEar, which transcribes voice to text in real time using an iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch, just as the Isobes envisioned.
It was a simple idea, but it changed Gerald’s life. Now when his colleagues talk to him, he can read what they’re saying on his Apple Watch. (The app even lets you adjust the text size and color, as well as the speed of the scroll.) Or when he’s paired with hearing golfers at a tournament, he can fire up the app to communicate.
“It’s not interpretation or translating; it’s real language, directly with other people,” Gerald says. “With an interpreter, there is a delay, which can leave a deaf person out. There can be confusion or misunderstandings.”
The Isobes quickly found that App MyEar is best for one-on-one conversations, since it doesn’t indicate who is speaking if there is more than one person talking.
So they took the next logical step and, with help from Gutierrez, created App MyGroup, an app that helps deaf people find real-time interpreters on demand. Think ride sharing for sign-language interpreters.
According to Gerald and Brandon, their apps aren’t a replacement for learning ASL (in fact, the Isobes are passionate advocates for learning to sign), but they are hopeful the apps will help bring the deaf and hearing worlds together, allowing a stronger way to communicate with each other. “We’re trying to bring friends and families together,” Brandon says.
And these apps do more than facilitate conversation—they deepen that communication as well.
“When I was growing up, I knew what people were talking about in simple chunks of information, but not in depth,” Gerald says. “I believe these apps will help people get access to more knowledge.”