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Video NPR Labs is Working on Emergency Alerts for the Deaf (Video) 89

When we think about NPR (National Public Radio) most of us think of A Prairie Home Companion or another favorite radio show. But NPR also has a research component, NPR Labs, that they say "is the nation's only not-for-profit broadcast technology research and development center." The video (below) is an interview with NPR person Maryfran Tyler about their pilot program designed "to demonstrate the delivery of emergency alerts to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing in the Gulf Coast states through local public radio stations and the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS®)." NPR also says, "This is the first effort to deliver real-time accessibility-targeted emergency messages, such as weather alerts, via radio broadcast texts."

Tim:So Maryfran, could you tell us, what are we looking at here? What is that _____on your right.

Maryfran:Today we are showing the emergency alerting work that we’ve worked on with CIMA for the deaf and hard of hearing. We are taking information from CIMA and channeling it through our network operations center in Washington, DC, and we have the ability to transmit it to our 1700 public radio stations around the country. And what we are doing is taking the CIMA information about emergencies such as floods, fires, hurricanes, tornados and we are displaying the text so that the deaf or hard of hearing user can see that text in real time.

Tim:Now how does the person know, if you are hard of hearing, how do you know that the alert has come in, is there additional signaling technology that is built into this hardware here?

Maryfran:We have developed an FM Receiver, and when the emergency alert occurs the receiver will flash lights that will flash on and off to gain the attention of the person who is deaf or hard of hearing.The FM receiver is battery operated, so in the event that the power goes out, you could still get the information. It is connected to a 7” Android tablet which displays the text and we also have the ability to connect a bed shaker to the back of the FM receiver. That means that if the emergency happens in the middle of the night the person who is deaf or hard of hearing can connect their bed shaker to the FM receiver and it will shake them awake. Then they can get out of bed and take a look at the text and see what the emergency is, and figure out if they need to take shelter.

Tim:Now it is localized in point, how tightly is it localized?

Maryfran:We are currently testing this in five Gulf Coast states with 26 public radio stations. There are about 500 users that are helping us with this project. We are doing this project in the late winter and early spring. It is a prototype right now. But our hope is, with CIMA support we will be able to roll this out on a wider scale. We really believe that this is going to save lives.

Tim:How much do you think this technology is likely to sell for as a package?

Maryfran:We have developed this prototype product for about $100. But it is really our hope that we will be able to produce larger quantities of it, and bring the price down.

Tim:Now besides it is an Android tablet, can you talk about the hardware itself? What are we looking at here? What is in the box?

Maryfran:We have a 7” Android tablet. The box is an FM receiver. It receives the information from the local NPR station or public radio station. It automatically zeroes in on the local station. So the end user does not have to fiddle with any dials to determine what that station is. Because in times of emergencies, when time is very important, you don’t want to have to be worrying about where the information is coming from—you just need to get that information.

Tim:Now I would like to go up a level and talk about the genesis of this product. So this comes out of NPR Labs, something that a lot of people listen to NPR but probably not many realize that you actually have a lab. So explain that.

Maryfran:NPR Labs is the research and development arm of NPR the public radio network. And we do a lot of work on engineering and technology development. We do a lot of consulting work, both for public radio stations but also for any organization or members of the public that are interested in getting more information about engineering, audio development, audio quality testing, power studies. In addition, we have been developing these new products and services that we think will enlarge the radio audience and retain the radio audience. We’ve discovered that about 15 million Americans are deaf and hard of hearing. And that’s because people are also aging into deafness. We are living longer, we are losing our hearing. We’ve been using earbuds, we’ve been going to rock concerts. So we think it is veryimportant to be able to have these enabling technologies that can empower people to take charge of their lives and get the information they need and be able to act on that information.

Tim:Now we’ve got this emergency alert system, but what about other uses for this sub band channel information, what about things like getting a transcript to A Prairie Home Companion and watch it on a screen?

Maryfran:We have had a separate pilot program working with Towson University in Maryland to develop captioning for radio. We’ve been very excited about it. We’ve been trying to develop captioning in real time. So we’ve been working with off-the-shelf software but also developing our own proprietary software and develop a process using voice writers to capture over-the-air broadcasters and respeak that information and translate it into both text and to Braille with about a 15-second latency. And we also have about a 98% accuracy rate—which is pretty incredible. It is important to us to make sure that the text is coming across with a very high accuracy rate because there are not the video clues that you might have as with televisions or a movie.

Tim:_____ ever hear that the public radio network should have any software that is proprietary. Is it software that is developed and won’t be freely available?

Maryfran:What we’re doing is we we’ve developed proprietary software but which is really for open use. And so we are really eager to work with others to bring this into the market because it is important that all Americans have the ability to listen to the radio, whether they are reading it or listening to it.

Tim:Can you talk about any of the other products that you got going?I think you have a Braille reader right over here.Can you talk about that?

Maryfran:We do have a Braille reader. So this is another example of how we are taking the text and then translating it to Braille. Here we have an example of what is called a brailler. Many folks who can read Braille and are blind would use this brailler to read from left to right. And it would carry the same information that is in text form, appears on the brailler.

Tim:Is this available now?

Maryfran:Many people who are blind and can read Braille have these braillers and they use them with their computers. So the work that we’ve done and the receivers that we’ve developed are to be used with some of the common braillers that you would use if you were blind and read braille.

Tim:So unlike the emergency alerter over here, this is more an application of software and of the captioning that you are working on independently.

Maryfran:It is an extension of what we have done.

Tim:Great. Now if people want to learn more about what NPR Labs does, what should they do?Is there a good website you’d recommend for them to look at?

Maryfran: They can come to or and we would be happy to share information.

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NPR Labs is Working on Emergency Alerts for the Deaf (Video)

Comments Filter:
  • Does it look like this? []

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sweet! Now the Republicans have another thing about NPR at they can point and derp on about how much precious, taxpayer-funded taxpayer money from job creators is being "wasted"! Sounds like another week worth of material for the Daily Show and another eight or so years of talking points for slack-jawed yokels to parrot!

    • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

      Actually, I'm not sure how successful this kind of thing really is.

      How about an Obama Phone and using TXT messaging for the deaf? Or a Smart Phone. Or, we could develop a TXT only device for EBS.

      There are a dozen other ways, off the top of my head, that they could accomplish the goals without spending a dime of tax payer money to solve the problem. ALL cheaper than whatever they are spending on re-inventing the wheel.

      Only Democrats look at a problem and think it is a problem that Tax dollars need to solve,

      • Because SMS texts and email don't have guarantees for delivery time. We get used to fast network speeds, but I've still occasionally gotten texts and emails a day or more after they were sent.
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Probably because the cell networks fall over the instant an emergency comes up so they want something a bit more professionally maintained with better range like a radio station to relay the signal.

        It's probably fairly cheap compared to getting the telcos to cooperate.

    • by icebike ( 68054 )

      precious, taxpayer-funded taxpayer money from job creators is being "wasted"!

      Radio research for the Deaf is pretty much the poster child of wasted money. Sort of like braille highway signs for blind drivers.

      Nearly all deaf [] people carry smartphones. The ones that don't, certainly don't carry radios, or any other device capable of receiving radio texts.

      There are scads of Apps in the Google market for the deaf. Most free. Deaf people can negotiate plans [] with zero minutes [] from almost all the carriers.

      NPR is looking at every problem as if it were a nail, because the only tool they hav

    • If NPR sounded less like MSNBC, I doubt the Republicans would bother with their pittance of the federal budget. NPR is so left wing that commercial talk radio is almost exclusively right wing.

      In any case, this program doesn't sound as likely to produce future advances as the space program could.

      • by Goody ( 23843 )

        The only reason it often sounds left wing to non-listeners is because conservative media won't spend 20 minutes exhaustively covering a subject like a frog species in South America or the history of the AK-47 (and not once mention school shootings or gun control). To compare it to MSNBC is laughable. MSNBC is just an inept left wing copy of Fox News. You clearly haven't listened to NPR to any extent if you think it sounds like MSNBC.

        • Oh, Right-WIng Media will happily spend 20 minutes of in-depth coverage on the Left's War On Christmas, or how clean Clean Coal is.

          I did once fill out a survey on "where do you get your news" - I checked the "Conservative talk radio" box, and filled in the "Station" box with KQED, which is my local public radio station. It's Establishment Media, which is conservative, as opposed to crazy right-wing media.

      • If I want to listen to left-wing media, I'll turn to KPFA (here in the San Francisco area, or other Pacifica stations elsewhere, like WBAI in NYC or KPFK in LA), for a mixture of news, culture, interesting music, etc.

        NPR isn't left-wing at all. It's Establishment Media, putting out the government's news as well as cultural programming. Think about any time they've talked about the war - how long was it before you heard anybody on public radio use the term "torture", except for Terry Gross interviewing boo

      • by Phroggy ( 441 )

        If NPR sounded less like MSNBC, I doubt the Republicans would bother with their pittance of the federal budget. NPR is so left wing that commercial talk radio is almost exclusively right wing.

        I'm not sure if you never listen to NPR, or never watch MSNBC...

  • As the wikipedia link in the summary points out, Prairie Home Companion is not an NPR production. While it is mostly broadcast on NPR stations (at least, in the US) it is not actually done by NPR.
    • by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @06:30PM (#46145151)

      This is a very fine distinction.

      Public radio are a bunch of independent radio stations. They order programing from a variety of sources. The big one is NPR. Minnesota Public Radio set up American Public Radio as an alternative source of programming the public stations could buy. One could argue it was to get a bigger cut of the fees for PHC.

      But the point is that you have 2 different corporations producing content for public radio. They are not that different.

  • by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @06:15PM (#46145023) Journal

    ...Garrett Morris repeating the alert, only louder.

    But this generation wouldn't get it.

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      WTF is 'this generation'? Why would it apply to /.?
      you don't think the only person from that generation on /. is you, do you?

  • um no (Score:2, Insightful)

    First off, "A Prairie Home Companion" isn't anyones favorite show... it's a leftist talk show with skits featuring horrible acting, which I wouldn't mind as I do like SNL but I give SNL a pass because it's funny, where as, Prairie Home Companion is about as un-funny as anything I've ever heard. Sadly, most of the shows surrounding it on Sundays are awesome and some of my favorite radio... so I have to spend part of the day enjoying the radio, then screech in horror as I race to turn it off as soon as I hear

    • by Anonymous Coward

      First off, "A Prairie Home Companion" isn't anyones favorite show... it's a leftist talk show with skits featuring horrible acting, ...

      What's it like being brainwashed?

      I have listened to NPR and PBS and well, as an educated skeptical person, I listen and check the facts the best I can. That is something that should be done with ALL media outlets - whether it's on purpose or not, ALL media outlets have a bias and we should be skeptical and on guard.

      Regardless, NPR has been shown to be the most neutral outlet in the US. We, the US, have gone so far to the right, that when we hear something in the center, it sounds leftist to us - it's pret

      • by Anonymous Coward an educated skeptical person...

        NPR has been shown to be the most neutral outlet in the US.

        I don't listen to NPR or have a dog in this fight at all. But how on earth can you call yourself an "educated skeptical person" and write drivel like "shown to be the most neutral"? Who compiled the metric? Is this on the same Left--Right axis as the one you agree with? For that matter, how can you rank a series of sentences as "Left" or "Right" in any kind of objective fashion at all? I can assure you that for any sentence and any position on a leftist-rightist ranking you choose, I can find somebody

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      ".. it's a leftist talk show with skits featuring horrible acting,.."
      are you.. feverish? stupid? just don't know what leftist means? I don't like it, but to call it a leftist talk show is pretty ignorant, at best.

      "Deaf people don't listen to the radio.."
      So that mean they won't be interested in reading the shows? []

      Well what do you know, it's about taking radio shows and translating them to text.

      It appears sir, YOU are the moron in this conversation.

    • by afidel ( 530433 )

      Meh, the problem is also solved via the EWS warnings going out via cellular towers, most folks today carry a cellphone and all new ones have to have EWS alerts available. (though I do have a problem with the EWS targeting, they know which tower and concentrator you are talking to, why do they give tornado warnings for the other side of the state?). In an emergency it's a lot more likely your cellphone will work than your tv (and solar chargers that will power your cellphone are small and inexpensive, though

      • by Roblimo ( 357 )

        A lot of people don't seem to have picked up on the fact that the NPR Labs emergency device picks up both radio broadcasts and satellite transmissions. That means it will work even when the power is out and the cellular towers stop working.

        After Hurricane Charlie in Florida my wife and I drove from Orlando to Bradenton via side roads, and there was no cellular service and half the radio stations were off the air. And even if the cell towers work, the systems get overloaded during emergencies because everybo

        • by afidel ( 530433 )

          I'm not seeing anything about the alerts being via satellite other than the fact that CAP alerts go out to the stations via PRSS, the end devices only receive the alert from the digital subchannel from the participating stations. As to the cell network being overloaded, EWS messages go out as broadcast SMS messages which means if your cellphone is on it will receive the message, data and voice channels being overloaded won't stop your phone from receiving SMS.

    • Deaf people don't listen to the radio you morons.

      Well, I wouldn't call it "listening," but I have a cousin who likes to crank the bass and 'feel' what's on the radio.

      He's also a pretty damn phenomenal guitarist, considering he has no idea what it sounds like.

      So, you know... generalizations and all...

    • "Deaf people don't listen to the radio you morons"

      No one listens to the radio, since it is comprised of electromagnetic radiation.

      • by neminem ( 561346 )

        Actually, I'd say they're mostly comprised of plastic and metal, if you want to really get nitpicky.

  • by sandbagger ( 654585 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @06:22PM (#46145103)

    You guys are slipping.

    Seriously, the work on broadcasting done by some of the national broadcasters has been amazing. If you are ever bored, go dig through the R&D archives of the Radiophonic workshop of the BBC. Fascinating stuff. In particular, the British Sound with lots of PRAT.

  • by tuppe666 ( 904118 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @06:30PM (#46145157)

    Like something small, personal, visual, that can provide vibrations and video that is always on....Like a Smartphone.

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      It sounds like they are doing a rather minor variation of exactly that.

      Still, I applaud any effort to leverage new technology to constructively engage the disabled. Most "accommodation" I've seen is stuff which goes out of its way to humiliate the disabled, inconvenience the able-bodied, and provide no value to its target demographic.

      For example, my city has pedestrian walk signals that put out an extremely obnoxious continual beeping. The noise is perfectly constant and provides no information to the vis

  • I don't know anyone who even has one of these emergency radios. Being HOH myself, I'd never get one, rarely ever even try to listen to standard FM/AM radio broadcasts, and would never try to listen to an emergency broadcast. Be prepared for weather. Know what is expected before the normal comm channels go down. If something is unexpected, most people aren't going to find out via emergency radios, but by word of mouth.
    • I don't know anyone who even has one of these emergency radios.

      I presume you don't live in Tornado Alley.

      They practically hand those things out at birth around here.

  • by wonkey_monkey ( 2592601 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @06:39PM (#46145249) Homepage

    Just as a one-off, you might have subtitled the video.

    Just sayin'.

  • Oh wait, I just read the freaking article, and that's exactly what they are using.

    The only question I have is "Why is the industry just now getting around to this? With respect to broadcast-FM non-satellite radio, wasn't this technology available in 1997 when the Emergency Alert System replaced the Emergency Broadcast System?"

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday February 03, 2014 @07:21PM (#46145577) Homepage

    My grandmother had a Weather radio that when it went off it would flash a red strobe so that she could see that there was an alert. she then could call the operator with her TTD and ask them what the alert was. Newer ones should be able to decode the data stream burst that has the same voice alert as text and display it on a scrolling screen.

    Everything is already in place for it, The problem is no manufacturers care at all about the Deaf so they dont make an EAS radio for them.

    • by antdude ( 79039 )

      TTD is so old school. I wished there was a way to do it over the Internet. It didn't work over dial-up modems when I tried to figure how to do it. I don't want to use the hardware devices.

  • that NPR has labs?
  • A couple years ago when I was working at chumby I worked with Rich Rarey at NPR Labs and wrote the code to get the braille device talking to the display device you see at 6:35 (which is an Insignia Infocast, Best Buy's OEM version of the Chumby 8) and also wrote an ActionScript extension module in C++ to allow them to write to the braille printing device and get input from it (via a custom USB protocol) within a Flash/ActionScript3 app, which is what their closed caption software was written in.

    Pretty cool

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