Microsoft (MSFT) on Monday announced that it’s bringing live captioning and subtitles to two of its biggest products, PowerPoint and Skype. Set to coincide with the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the move will facilitate communications between users with hearing difficulties or who speak different languages.
I was able to experience the new communication features during a recent visit to Microsoft’s massive Redmond, Washington, campus. It worked incredibly well, offering seamless, real-time captioning that kept up with every word spoken in the room.
That became a problem when it was translating Spanish to English and I began speaking in English, but that’s to be expected.
Of course, Microsoft isn’t the only company working on or offering accessibility features for its consumers.
Apple’s (AAPL) iOS lets individual users configure playback and captioning, and can read content out loud for those who have vision issues. There’s also a guided control feature that lets parents or caregivers ensure individuals with autism or attention and sensory issues stay on task by disabling the Home button, as well as portions of the display to limit accidental inputs.
Building for accessibility
Microsoft’s accessibility team is run by Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the company’s chief accessibility officer and someone who understands how important such features are for users. As someone who’s been nearly deaf her whole life, Lay-Flurrie also stands to benefit from the captioning features coming to PowerPoint and Skype.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability. And unfortunately, using a computer or smartphone isn’t exactly easy for many of them.
By adding real-time captioning, Microsoft will be able to open up PowerPoint and Skype to individuals with hearing problems. So if you’re hard of hearing, you’ll still be able to keep up with your coworker’s presentation, or chat with your friends and family across the globe. Of course, sign language is always an option, but thousands of people with hearing problems can’t sign. And if you also have a physical disability, signing might not even be an option.
Outside of individuals with hearing problems, the captioning feature will also benefit folks without hearing problems who are working with others who speak different languages thanks to real-time translations.
During my demonstration, the real-time translation provided English captions when a Microsoft representative was speaking Spanish and vice versa.
But there are millions of other device users in the world who have disabilities unrelated to their hearing abilities. That’s why, Lay-Flurrie says, the company is continuing to work on additional capabilities that will allow the greatest number of people to use their devices without a problem.
According to Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft considers accessibility features whenever it builds out a new product. Right now that includes technologies like high-contrast settings and magnifiers for people with vision problems, as well as the company’s recent Xbox Accessibility Controller, not to mention its work on ALS accessibility and mobility technologies.
Microsoft says that it will continue to build out its new captioning and translation features for PowerPoint will support 12 spoken languages and more than 60 captionable languages at launch. Skype meanwhile will eventually support translation for 20 languages.
The updates to the services roll out for PowerPoint in early 2019, while the translation feature for Skype is available Monday, Dec. 3.
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