Tech firm shows off new video-relay device to Austin’s deaf community

Posted June 21st, 2017

On Tuesday night, in the lobby of Austin’s Topfer Theatre on South Lamar, about 350 members of Austin’s deaf community gathered to learn about a new device being offered from Sorenson Communications, a video-relay device called the ntouch VP2.

The product preview, in the guise of a celebration (similar events have taken place in Los Angeles, Rochester, N.y., and Washington D.C.), was not exactly a sales pitch. The Salt Lake City-based company that makes the gadget and supporting apps, which allow deaf users to do group video chats and interpreter-assisted phone calls through their smart phone, computer or HDTV via the Internet, wasn’t urging attendees to rush to Best Buy or to pay for the new gadget through Sorenson’s website.

Michael Samaripa / ContributedMembers of Austin's deaf community watch a demonstration of Sorenson Communications' ntouch VP2 video relay product inside the Topfer Theatre building at Zach Scott on Tuesday, June 21.

Distribution of the ntouch VP2, the fourth-generation of a product the company has been making for more than a decade, is federally funded by the U.S. Telecommunications Relay Service Fund as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While Sorenson competes with other companies for those government dollars, its customers don’t pay anything to have its devices installed in their homes.

The ntouch VP2 is an evolution of several technologies that many of us take for granted: video chatting similar to Skype or Facetime, apps that can do call transfers and call forwarding, voice mail and making phone calls via Bluetooth. But the gadget, which combines a high-def video camera, a remote control and an Internet gateway that uses a customer’s home Internet, is also a big step beyond traditional TTY systems. Those systems allowed deaf callers to place messages that were typed in through a traditional phone line (this was pre smart-phone texting) to another TTY unit or read aloud by an interpreter. VRS is the video equivalent of that, with a live interpreter speeding up what used to be a more cumbersome process.

Sorenson CommunicationsIn this chart provided by Sorenson Communications, a video relay system, which allows deaf users to communicate through an interpreter via video and over a phone call is explained.

Eric Emmons, a 22-year Austin resident who’s worked for Sorenson for 14 years, says that for deaf users such as himself, TTY made for very long phone conversations.

Omar L. GallagaEric Emmons, SVRS regional sales director based out of Austin, poses with a menu screen for the ntouch VP2 from Sorenson Communications at the Topfer Theatre at Zach Scott on June 20, 2017. Emmons, who is deaf and uses the product, has been with the company for 14 years.

“It wasn’t that fluid or fast,” he said. “We felt like foreigners unable to speak our native language.”

VRS not only allows for faster messaging, but for emotions and expressions to be communicated as well through an American Sign Language interpreter.

Outside of the home, mobile apps extend the experience for group video chats and for interpreter-assisted calls on the go. Emmons said it’s a big deal for someone who is deaf to be able to use a regular phone number and to be able to have the freedom to communicate from anywhere.

“It’s a real number,” he said. “Anyone can call me directly on my cell phone. It has really improved the quality of life for the deaf community.”

Sorenson executives declined to release a figure for how many people are using the company’s products, but say that it’s in the tens of thousands. Austin, home of the Texas School for the Deaf, is a prime market for the company, they said.

For users who already have a VP2 system, the new ntouch is being swapped out as an upgrade over the next year as quickly as the hardware can be manufactured, the company said. The Tuesday night event, 

Sorenson Communications, LLC.The ntouch VP2 is the fourth generation of videophone relay products from Sorenson Communications. Improvements in its new hardware include a better auto-focus camera and integrated Bluetooth. It connects to an HDTV and uses a home Internet connection.

Emmons said, was a way to show the new tech to existing customers as well as new ones who might want to sign up. Those who attended the event were given what he described as a “golden ticket” that moves them to the front of the waiting list.

The Relay Service Fund has allowed companies such as Sorenson to try to keep up with the fast pace of new features rolled out on smart phones and other devices to provide functionally equivalent services for the deaf. 

That can make a huge different in providing opportunities, Emmons said.

“It can help someone who is deaf have equal access to a job or start a business,” he said. “It opens up a lot of doors.