Last year, I read a social media post from a young woman in Israel. She shared a story about a guy she was in a relationship with, who was deaf, struggling to fix the internet connection at their home. The internet service provider’s tech support had no way to communicate with him via text, email or chat, even though they knew he was deaf. She wrote about how important it was for him to feel independent and be empowered.
This got me thinking: How can we help people make and receive phone calls without having to speak or hear? This led to the creation of our research project, Live Relay.
Live Relay uses on-device speech recognition and text-to-speech conversion to allow the phone to listen and speak on the users’ behalf while they type. By offering instant responses and predictive writing suggestions, Smart Reply and Smart Compose help make typing fast enough to hold a synchronous phone call.
Live Relay is running entirely on the device, keeping calls private. Because Live Relay is interacting with the other side via a regular phone call (no data required), the other side can even be a landline.
Of course, Live Relay would be helpful to anyone who can’t speak or hear during a call, and it may be particularly helpful to deaf and hard-of-hearing users, complementing existing solutions. In the U.S., for example, there are relay and real-time text (RTT) services available for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. These offer advantages in some situations, and our goal isn’t to replace these systems. Rather, we mean to complement them with Live Relay as an additional option for the contexts where it can help most, like handling an incoming call or when the user prefers a fully automated system for privacy consideration.
We’re even more excited for Live Relay in the long term because we believe it can help all of our users. How many times have you gotten an important call but been unable to step out and chat? With Live Relay, you would be able to take that call anywhere, anytime with the option to type instead of talk. We are also exploring the integration of real-time translation capability, so that you could potentially call anyone in the world and communicate regardless of language barriers. This is the power of designing for accessibility first.
Live Relay is still in the research phase, but we look forward to the day it can give our users more and better ways to communicate—especially those who may be underserved by the options available today.