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The Start of Online Captioning (realtime text transmission)

The Court Reporter's Guide to CyberspaceClosed captioning has been a part of television broadcasting for several decades. For pre-recorded shows, the captions can be added in a studio, carefully typed, proofed, and formatted. In the U.S., this is known as “offline” captioning. For a live show, someone has to type that text as it is spoken, known as “online” or “realtime” captioning. It is traditionally been performed using a stenotype keyboard like court reporters use, and the person typing at breakneck speeds of over 200 wpm is called a stenocaptioner (this is what my wife, Kathy, does for a living).

Realtime captioning technology was first used on a live broadcast during the Academy Awards in 1982, performed by my friend Martin Block. A decade later, it still hadn’t found its way into cyberspace, except in limited private chats. The company my wife and I started (Cheetah Systems) had been playing with the concept of streaming realtime text, but hadn’t had a chance to use it online. The following is an excerpt from my first book (The Court Reporter’s Guide to Cyberspace), with a wee bit of editing to bring it up-to-date and change the writing to first person.

The big unveiling of realtime into cyberspace occurred in November of 1994. California State Senator Barbara Boxer set up a conference in Washington, D.C., for California business leaders. One of the guests was Vice President Al Gore, speaking on the subject of “Building the Information Superhighway.” When I saw the Vice President’s name on my conference invitation, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to use this technology. At the time, there were some issues with fast text streaming on the Internet, but CompuServe had chat forums that were working well for the purpose. I called Vice President Gore’s office and suggested live streaming of the speech.

Barbara Boxer is not a large woman. At 6'5" tall, I ended up looking like the Jolly Green Giant in this photo with her.

Barbara Boxer is not a large woman. At 6’5″ tall, I ended up looking like the Jolly Green Giant in this photo with her.

At first, the Vice President’s office resisted the idea of realtiming the speech onto CompuServe. They felt that if it wasn’t being broadcast on television or radio, it shouldn’t be broadcast on CompuServe, either. In actuality, politicians speaking to special interest groups rarely want their words shared with general audiences. Eventually, though, both Senator Boxer and Vice President Gore agreed to have their speeches realtimed.  

Realtime reporter Jack Boenau from Sarasota, Florida, agreed to handle the realtiming. He and I flew to Washington. Richard Sherman (my co-author of The Court Reporter’s Guide to Cyberspace) reserved a virtual conference room in CompuServe’s “CRForum” (the forum for court reporters and captioners).

On the morning of the speech, Jack Boenau and I were present at the Russell Building in Washington, D.C., and the world was at their computers and logged into CRForum’s Conference Room 2, renamed “V.P. Gore Conference” for this historic event. Everybody anxiously awaited the scheduled 12 noon, EST, commencement.

At the last minute, we found that we couldn’t get a modem to connect using an outside line from the Russell Building because all of the building’s phone systems were digital. I ended up — much to the dismay of the Vice President’s security detail — stringing my modem lines behind the stage to be used by Senator Boxer and V.P. Gore, and into a little phone booth in the kitchen. I had to take apart the phone booth and jack in to the phone. The Senate techs weren’t overly enthused about my ad-hoc phone phreaking, either.

Once the hookup was complete, Jack provided entertaining and informative narration to online participants, describing the scene in Washington, the security clearances, the snarling dogs trained to lunge for the jugular at the sound of an unfolding tripod. I had an interesting encounter with one of the bomb-sniffing dogs, but I’ll save that story for another time.

And the speech in Washington was read on computer screens across America as it happened. Here is the beginning of Senator Boxer’s introduction of the Vice President (taken directly from the transcript):  

SENATOR BOXER: One thing I wanted to mention to you, which is terrific, today’s speech by Vice President Al Gore is about building the information superhighway, but the Vice President isn’t just talking, however. The speech, part of the seminar put on by yours truly, is being transmitted live onto CompuServe, one of the information services that make up the prototypical information superhighway. So as we sit here right now, because of these terrific people, with about a two-minute lag, they will be receiving the speech. Oh, I’m sorry, a two-second interval. They will be receiving the speech. See, I have to catch up. You’re so far ahead.

The last comment was directed at Jack and I, as we gave a thumbs-up for the correction on delay time. How fitting it was that the first major national “broadcast” of this type was on the subject of the information superhighway! In the words of the Vice President himself during this address:

The changes that are now underway within our society and within our civilization as a result of new information technologies is very difficult to overstate. These changes are of the same order of magnitude as those changes which accompanied the invention of the printing press, except that these changes will not be strung out over centuries. Instead, the impact will be telescoped into only a few years.

Jack Boenau (on the right) and I hoping that our power suits and 90s haircuts will keep that cutting-edge technology working. The tea and apple pie was to keep us working.

Jack Boenau (on the right) and I hoping that our power suits and 90s haircuts will keep that cutting-edge technology working. The tea and apple pie was to keep us working.

From around the country and the world, reporters and lay persons witnessed a remarkable event. Sitting thousands of miles away, everyone could participate in an event otherwise accessible only by those in attendance. Those online could watch the words of the Vice President scroll across computer monitors, and although no questions were entertained from the general public during this session, individuals sitting at computer keyboards had the capability to ask questions, offer input, or cast votes in an election situation, if permitted to do so.

Everything worked beautifully and an entirely new arena opened up for realtime reporters through the melding of two technologies: online communications technology and this latest breakthrough in reporting technology.

Today, this kind of event is taken for granted. In 1994, it was groundbreaking. In fact, it became the backbone of an Internet broadcasting company (Cheetah Broadcasting) that my brother and I ran for several years, performing live transcription of events onto CompuServe, America Online, Internet chat rooms, and eventually dedicated web applications.

Facebook: A tool for journalists?

Facebook logoAsk anyone what Facebook is, and they’re likely to give the same short, sweet answer: it’s a social networking site. Indeed, that’s its primary use for me these days (once I have all of the games filtered out and ignore the politics and religion), but that’s not its only use.

As an example, I’m working on an article about closed captioning for the Journal of Court Reporting. I needed some interviews for the article, so I sat down to compile a list of people to talk to. I had my email program open on one of my screens, and Facebook open on the other, and it got me thinking. I’ve been fairly diligent about sorting my friends into lists, and I just happen to have a list for friends who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or work with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

I went through the list, saying “oh, I need to talk to her” and “I wonder what he’d say about this issue.” I fired off a quick private message to each of the people I wanted to talk to, and started scheduling interview times. In the past, I’ve done a lot of telephone interviews, and a lot of email interviews. I have also done interviews using a variety of chat systems, ranging from CompuServe and IRC online to TDDs (telecommunication devices for the deaf) online, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve done online chat interviews.

Just for kicks, I decided to see how much of the communication for this article I can do using Facebook, just to see how it works out. Obviously, this limited my base of potential interviewees to people I know (or can find) on Facebook. It also slows things down a bit, as typed conversations are slower than oral ones. Here are a few comments, observations, and tips on the process:

  1. Having a verbatim transcript of the interview is handy. During phone interviews, I’m often scrambling to take notes as we talk, and doing it on Facebook chat means I can just cut and paste quotes into the article (however, see #4 below).
  2. The process is much more interactive than an email interview, allowing each question to be tailored based on previous responses. Trying to replicate this in email could stretch the process out for days.
  3. Being able to insert links in the chat is a big help if you want to show the interviewee something and get comments on it.
  4. Using chat introduces an interesting journalistic dilemma. Even careful writers have a tendency to use chat abbreviations (e.g., BTW, OTOH, IIRC) and not worry much about punctuation. When quoting them in the article, should you leave their text as-is, or write it out and re-punctuate it as you would for a phone interview? Hmmm. I think I’ll ask that question on a couple of message boards — or maybe bounce it around on Facebook. I’ll follow up here later.
  5. This could work just as well on Google+, except for the paucity of people on G+ compared to Facebook.
  6. This would be an annoying process on Twitter, worrying all the time about hitting that maximum character count. Some of the Facebook responses were quite long.
  7. The partially-synchronous nature of chat leads to some interesting responses. Often, both of you are typing at the same time (Facebook tries to tell you when the other person’s typing, but that is often flaky). Several times, I typed questions as the interviewees were typing comments that answered my questions. Reading the transcript, it looks like they answered my questions before I asked them!
  8. Sometimes it’s hard to hang back and wait for the other person to finish their thoughts before asking something else, but it pays off if you do!

So, is Facebook a social networking site? Certainly it is. But it’s a lot more these days, too.

Once the article appears in print, I’ll put a copy of it online so you can judge how well the process worked out.

UPDATE: Here it is.

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