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Video of my TEDx talk, and a few words about the content

TEDxBozeman header

Everything always seems to take longer than expected, and when my talk hit YouTube, I was out of town on vacation for a couple of weeks. I’m back now, and we can get caught up.

First of all, the talk is on the main TED website, but it’s a bit laborious to find. The primary search doesn’t turn it up (and the Gary Robson that appears isn’t me); you have to look in the TEDx section of the site. I’ll save you the trouble and provide a direct link: go here to watch my talk on

I also have a direct link to the talk on YouTube, but I can make it even easier than that: here’s an embedded video with closed captions so you just have to click “play.” I am really excited that over 1,500 people have watched this on YouTube in less than a week!

A word about the captions on this video: The TEDxBozeman video crew hadn’t dealt with web captioning before, and when they sent me test files, I was having trouble getting them to play on my computer for some reason. We started with a clean transcript. My wife, Kathy, is a realtime captioner and she volunteered to create the file for me. I did a bit of editing (not much required; Kathy is a pro!) and then the video crew did the timing and placement. We still have a few glitches with line breaks and positioning, but I hope we can get those cleaned up soon.

My “behind the scenes” post talked about the actual experience of giving the talk, but I’d like to talk a bit now about the content. The message in this video is important to me for many reasons, and everyone who shares this video with their friends helps to spread that message. In a nutshell, the message is this: Captions are a nicety for those of us who can hear; they are a necessity for those who can’t. Certainly hearing people outnumber deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) people, but we can’t let the needs of the minority be drowned out by the convenience of the majority.

As I said in the talk, the World Health Organization says that 5% of the world’s population has disabling hearing loss. That’s 360 MILLION people! They need more than just an approximation of the dialog randomly tossed on a screen. Their captions are every bit as important as our audio, and those captions should be properly timed, properly placed, properly spelled, and comprehensive.

I am pleased by the action that the FCC has decided to take. They are moving the right direction, but it’s going to be a difficult move. How do you assign a numeric score to caption quality so that it can be legislated? What’s worse: a misspelled word or a caption covering someone’s face? How far behind can realtime captions be? I don’t envy them the work that’s going to go into legislating quality, but I’ll be happy to jump in and help if they ask. I’ve put a lot of time into questions like that throughout my career.

On TEDx stage with FCC logo

There’s one other thing I’d like to clarify: in no way should my talk be construed as a blanket condemnation of the people performing captioning today. Quite to the contrary, that business is filled with talented, caring people who work their tails off to produce a quality product. Unfortunately, a lot of station executives don’t give captioning the priority it deserves, and the job goes to the lowest bidder rather than the most qualified bidder. A broadcaster can meet the letter of the law today with a captioner who does no preparation, no research, and no post-broadcast QC analysis to improve the next broadcast. This is why realtime captioners earn less than half as much today as they did 20 years ago.

When we do something because we feel that it’s the right thing to do, we want to do it right; when we do something because we’re forced to do it, we’ll often do the least that we can get away with.

Legislation has unfortunately hurt us here, even as it’s helped in many other ways. By forcing everyone to caption, we have increased the quantity of captioning without providing incentive to increase (or even maintain) the quality. It’s good to see that changing.



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.

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