As the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family and with sign language as his mother tongue, it was only natural that Thibault Duchemin would become the translator and human bridge between his family and the outside world. Growing up, he felt increasingly frustrated: while globalisation had managed to break down some barriers, the ones between his two worlds seemed as daunting as ever.
Tackling this issue through interpreters or captioners at $100/hr is too costly to represent a solution aimed at meeting the daily needs of this collective, and group conversations quickly surpass the capabilities of existing assistive devices. The result? 360 million people who suffer from hearing disabilities (that's 5% of the population), and must rely on lip-reading to understand what the rest of the world is saying aloud. Understanding less than 25% of what is said in a group conversation leads to social and professional exclusion and leaves the hearing-impaired feeling isolated and alienated.
While pursuing a master’s degree in engineering at the University of California - Berkeley (US), Thibault worried about no longer being available to facilitate conversations for his sister. It was with her in mind that he created Ava: the first app designed to make group conversations accessible to hearing-disabled people, a breakthrough which earned Thibault a spot among MIT Technology Review, Spanish edition's 35 Innovators Under 35 Europe 2017.
Ava, which must be downloaded in advance, connects conversation participants´ smartphones, captures the audio data, and color-codes each speaker inside dialogue boxes to make the conversation visually accessible, while illustrating the conversational dynamics. Deaf and hard-of-hearing users can now see who says what around them in real time, and their typed answer can be voiced if they cannot voice it themselves. Ava offers the world's fastest captioning experience and works with the best voice recognition and transcription systems to help Thibault’s family, his co-founder (who is also hard-of-hearing) and the rest of the hearing-impaired world participate in conversations and feel included.
After raising $2M through a round of seed financing, Ava was officially launched last November 24th in San Francisco (US), where the app connected over 1,000 families during the traditional Thanksgiving holiday dinner. Over 50,000 people in the US and France have been living a more accessible life ever since. The start-up is planning another round of investment to finance their expansion to further European countries and their development efforts in different languages, revolutionising the world of accessibility one conversation at a time.
As Luis Alonso Pastor, a Research Scientist at MIT Media Lab and jury member for Innovators Under 35 Europe 2017, puts it: “Ava will bring equal access to education, information, and conversations to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, helping to forge relationships and create professional opportunities”.
By Paula Oriol
Translation: Teresa Woods