The Future Is Calling: Olivier Jeannel Talks To Us About RogerVoice and Designing Tech For the Hearing Impaired
Imagine a life where you could only communicate with others on the go by texting them or sending emails. Up until now, this has been what it’s like for a deaf person to use a smartphone. While there are many ways for hearing impaired people to communicate in person, smartphones have so far failed to address their needs. That’s where Olivier Jeannel stepped in. Olivier is an entrepreneur, a sports enthusiast who loves climbing and surfing, and he is also deaf. Tired of not being able to use his smartphone to talk to people, he decided to do something about it and that’s why he created RogerVoice, an app that helps deaf people communicate. It’s been featured in places like TechCrunch, Forbes, and Wired. In this week’s interview, he’ll tell you about the process of developing a technology for the hearing impaired, and will share some insights on opportunities for entrepreneurs to help people with disabilities or alternative needs.
Voice recognition technology like Siri was now in everyone’s hands. It was a tether-free speech assistant, at a fraction of the cost, able to understand multiple languages, and – with no human intermediaries – was totally private. Voice recognition and speech synthesis clearly seemed to hold more promise for the future.
Olivier, what’s your work background and how did your work and personal background lead you to create RogerVoice?
RogerVoice came about at the crossroads of different paths in my life. I was exposed to the dotcom bubble in California, and understood the possibilities that come with the Internet revolution that we live in now. I grew up deaf, and have been adapting to my environment with different degrees of success. I became involved in several NGO activities with my friends, which helped shape my vision of social entrepreneurship. I chose to move to France where there are no phone relay services, and where accessibility in general is much less developed than in America. And I spent my career in the telecom industry, learning about the market.
At first, I joined some friends in setting up an association whose main goal was to lobby for a phone relay service in France. The battle is still being fought, ten years on. America is still the only country with a national and universally accessible telecommunications system. If it’s so hard setting up a similar system in France, a wealthy country with strong social welfare programs, then what hope for the many other countries in Europe and elsewhere? There had to be another way. It seemed odd to me that we were using 20th century solutions requiring human interpreters, when we were in the 21st century. Voice recognition technology like Siri was now in everyone’s hands. It was a tether-free speech assistant, at a fraction of the cost, able to understand multiple languages, and – with no human intermediaries – was totally private. Voice recognition and speech synthesis clearly seemed to hold more promise for the future.
Tell us about Rogervoice and what excites you most about it? Do you see it being able to help you connect and communicate better with others?
The other day, I spoke to my friend in San Francisco over the phone using RogerVoice. And I left the loud-speaker mode on. As he spoke, I heard his voice, and would see the text appear afterwards. I would find myself trying to guess what he would say before the text appeared. It’s funny, but I was training my hearing a bit, in some way. It was an unexpected discovery, and I wondered at the implications for educational therapists. And then I started wondering if, more generally, it could help people who did not speak a language, to learn to do so using it. Did you know that the biggest users of subtitles on TV are immigrants learning a new language? Is that a secondary market for RogerVoice?
Another unexpected benefit, which I hadn’t forseen but seems obvious to me now, was enabling people with speech difficulties to phone. Many deaf people have difficulty speaking, or choose not to, and therefore I included the ability to type a response during a call. The typed response gets vocalized, in real-time, using speech synthesis. A friend then told me that this could benefit not only the deaf, but also people with speech paralysis, aphasia, severe stuttering, and so forth. I had no idea. And I was quite happy at discovering this unexpected and additional benefit of RogerVoice for people with speech difficulties.
By far the most promising aspect of RogerVoice for me, is the ability to change the perspective people have on disability. Not just what others think of you, but also what you think of yourself. It didn’t matter if people actually called. Just knowing that you’ve been “robbed” of an excuse, that the possibility exists, for me this changes the whole game. When you’re handicapped, there’s all this stigma, real or not, associated with hospitals and clunky paramedical devices and sick people and attendants and everything happening in slow motion… I wanted RogerVoice to be this cool hip mobile app that deaf people could hold and say “sure, call me up!” I’ve been told alarming statistics about how only 1 in 5 persons who should be wearing hearing aids bother to do so. About how it takes on average 7 years before a person admits they have a hearing loss. With over 40% of seniors that have hearing loss, why can’t it be cool to wear hearing aids like it’s cool to wear glasses? I see the technology as a stepping stone towards making hearing loss less intimidating, both for the person with hearing loss, and for their community.
I know this response is really long, but I have to say one more thing which excites me about RogerVoice. The thing about the telephone, is that it’s meant to bring people closer together. It’s meant to make it easy to call the doctor or your mother. People make 5 phone calls per day on average. The phone is so handy, so ubiquitous, that we don’t even realize how often we use it. Deaf people are left out of this amazing tool, and the possibilities that come with it. So the phone actually becomes a barrier, rather than a useful technology. And the irony of the story, is that Alexander Graham Bell, who first patented the telephone, was actually doing research into the properties of sound in order to help the deaf: both his wife and his mother were deaf. It’s exciting for me to imagine that 150 years on, voice recognition will finally make telecommunications accessible to the deaf. And to bring down this barrier.
Have there been any big successes either financially and/or socially in technologies for the deaf, or more broadly, technologies for people with disabilities? Where do you think the big potential for impact is in this space?
Biomedical research is rocking the field. If things keep up, within 50 years, we’ll be done with white canes, hearing aids, and wheelchairs.
And I’m only half joking.
The biggest successes in technologies for people with disability, have come from including accessibility as a design standard. This spans everything from sidewalk ramps and dotted curbs, to the latest iPhone gimmicks. Seeing Siri advertisements where a blind woman interacts by voice with her phone, is just astounding. And not just for the blind. Accessibility isn’t only meant to benefit such and such disabilities specifically. Its impact stretches to the overall population who find greater benefits or better quality of life in environments that are more accessible. For me, accessibility is the new gold standard for design, whether in architecture, transportation, media, or communications.
What are the biggest mistakes that entrepreneurs are making who are developing technologies for people with hearing impairments?
This comedy sketch video sums it up
Kidding aside, it’s important to always go out in the field and validate your ideas with your target group. Have them use your early prototypes and see if it’s actually useful. This applies to everyone, not just to people with disabilities. I’ve seen very ambitious projects that describe far-fetched scenarios. Or situations where the technology itself is a hassle to use, which just increases the frustration one would have with our disability. Things need to be kept simple, and not require undue effort. A great example that has been well advertised was Uber’s implementation of a flash-alert mode and SMS-only communications for their deaf drivers. Clients would be alerted ahead of time that their driver was deaf, and to communicate with them by SMS instead of calling. Simple. Effective.
Accessibility isn’t meant to benefit such and such disabilities specifically. Its impact stretches to the overall population who find greater benefits or better quality of life in environments that are more accessible. For me, accessibility is the new gold standard for design, whether in architecture, transportation, media, or communications.
Are there political barriers that need to be addressed? Do the technologies need to first have advocates who have the disability before others with the disability will begin using it and entrepreneurs don’t have these advocates first?
I don’t think it matters if the entrepreneur in question has a disability or not. Sure, it helps. But as long as they understand the problem and communicate with the target community, that shouldn’t be a barrier to developing an effective solution.
What is important to take into consideration, is personal motivation related to the problem. An entrepreneur eyeing the market and their wallet, or doing a project for the sake of the solution and the technology, will lose sight of their customer’s needs, and will burn themselves out. Over time, they will lose motivation.
As for politics, well, if you spend time on policy then you’re not spending time on technology. Sometimes one helps the other, sometimes not.
What are some lessons that you have learned while developing RogerVoice that you can share with others interested in developing technologies for people with disabilities? Are there things that they can learn from your successes and mistakes?
There will always be doubters and critics, even within your own community. Find people who love your project, find out what they love about your project, and work on that. Make sure you repeatedly go back to your community and test again. At some point, you’ll know if your solution really addresses their problems. I must have gone through half a dozen prototypes and tested repeatedly with over 20 people, one-on-one each time, before I felt like I had found the right technology and the right use case.
RogerVoice does not address all the concerns that the deaf and hard-of-hearing would have with respect to communications on the phone. For example, many profoundly deaf people have very low literacy levels, and communicate exclusively with sign language. It doesn’t address their issues. And I’m aware of that. It doesn’t address the problems of the deaf-blind population either. That doesn’t mean it has failed and should be hacked to pieces. It means RogerVoice isn’t “one size fits all”. I’m hoping other entrepreneurs will step up and provide a solution for different segments of the deaf community.
It’s important to understand that people adapt to disabilities differently. Some have an apprehension towards trying new things. Even if it’s meant to improve their situation.
My goal right now, is to address the personal use case that I’m dealing with on an everyday basis, and to market that to the community that shares my use case.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that another entrepreneur who has a similar solution to yours, or addresses the same problem differently, is going to fight for their market. Their advocates and fans won’t hesitate to tear you down. A business is a business. I learned that the hard way.
Any other comments or thoughts on how people (e.g., entrepreneurs, researchers, or business people) can apply your work to improve their daily lives or work?
Believe in your dreams, and make the jump. There may not be enough water in the pool when you leap off the diving board, but you’ll just have to fill it up as you go down. Either you’ll make a big splash, or you’ll get hurt and learn from your mistakes. You’ll come out the better for it either way. Don’t give up, and just do it!
Olivier Jeannel is CEO of RogerVoice. Born and raised in California, Olivier was schooled in a changing world. A graduate of UC Berkeley and of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, his early interest in international relations led him to the US Department of State in Washington DC. Seeking to combine international relations and new technologies, Olivier eventually careered in financial strategy and content development at multinational telco Orange, in Paris and in Madrid.
Throughout his career Olivier has maintained a passion for social entrepreneurship. As an early backer of the Victor Pineda Foundation and a founding member of Association Aditus, Olivier is committed to fostering a better world through greater accessibility.