Intern Project Amplifies Benefits for Hard of Hearing Community

August 2017
MITRE Interns
MITRE interns (left to right) Michael Tota, Minnie Buenaventura, Grace Yukawa and Andre Webster
MITRE interns (left to right) Michael Tota, Minnie Buenaventura, Grace Yukawa and Andre Webster, are testing various devices and software to ensure interoperability and compatibility of Video Relay Service prototypes for the Federal Communications Commission.

We've all experienced video calls with annoying technical issues, from poor audio to blurry video.

Now imagine you are deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) and you try to interpret sign language on incompatible video phone devices. It's not only annoying, it's unacceptable.

MITRE is doing something about that, with the help of four deaf and HoH interns from Gallaudet University and Rochester Institute of Technology. The students add a unique perspective to the company's work developing Video Relay Service (VRS) prototypes for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) National Test Lab. (VRS services allow deaf and HoH people to communicate with others through a third person using sign language.)

The students test various devices and software to ensure interoperability and compatibility of these systems. They provide critical insight into the communications preferences of deaf and HoH people. The overall goal is to help ensure top video quality, latency delay, and consistent connections through the entire call.

"I've had video calls where the video input from the other side is blurry or pixelated," says intern Michael Tota, a junior information technology major at Gallaudet University. "That makes it hard for me to understand what the other person is saying using sign language. Other times, the other side has difficulty understanding me. It's important for all video phone providers to be compatible so that the deaf and HoH community has 100 percent access to communications."

"Since I use VRS outside of this project, being able to apply my experience to real-life situations and seeing how the results come out is great," adds Grace Yukawa a senior mechanical engineering student at Rochester. "This is crucial in the deaf community since VRS is one of our primary modes of communicating."

Research Team Energized by Interns

MITRE has been working on this project for a while.

"Our project started two-and-a-half years ago as a research-based approach to solving problems and guiding data-driven decisions for the FCC," says MITRE's Jeff Rogers, who came up with the idea of using the interns this summer. "MITRE's research represents a fundamental shift in how the FCC proposes, makes, and sets policies and rates for the Telecommunication Relay Service [TRS]."

The students are working on two FCC-funded community service products:

  • Video Relay Service (VRS), which is a video telecommunication service that allows deaf, HoH, and speech-impaired people to communicate over video telephones and similar technologies with hearing people in real time, via sign language.
  • Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS), which allows people to speak directly to the called party and then listen, to the extent possible, to the other party and simultaneously read captions of what the person is saying.

"Having these students here at MITRE is refreshing and energizing," Rogers adds. "We want to gain experience with the deaf and HoH community as part of our prototype and pilot development so we can advance the technology to support this community. The students give us that, while gaining some great experience working on the VRS."

Developing Connections for Careers and Communications

"This program benefits both MITRE and the students," MITRE's Reeta Singh says. "We get new, diverse viewpoints from people who are dealing with hearing issues every day. And the students get access to equipment and MITRE people to develop some real experience they can use in their careers."

The students agree.

"It's such a fantastic experience for me to work on ways to improve VRS interoperability," Tota says. "Not all deaf people have the same devices and software. It's all based on personal preferences, so it's important that all the devices and software work together without problems. The coolest thing about this project are the tests on devices and software that I've never used before."

"My experience has been very beneficial," adds Minnie Buenventura, a senior at Gallaudet pursuing an information technology degree. "I'm part of the deaf and HoH community and I want that community to have good-quality communications access and better services."

"Working on this project has been a lot of fun," says Andre Webster, a fifth-year electrical engineering student at Rochester. "It's cool to see the different engineering aspects that go into a VRS service and to work with a fantastic team. The scope of this project is very important because many deaf and hard of hearing people use VRS services not just for social purposes but also professionally."

—by Andy Porter

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