David Zax

A View from David Zax

Do We Need Specialized Hardware for the Deaf?

Companies that once made specialized hardware may soon be relegated to software and services.

  • April 4, 2013

A company called Purple Communications this week unveiled a product called SmartVP. It’s a videophone with applications and features to help deaf people communicate. Purple says it’s the first videophone to feature “true HD quality.”

How do deaf people use the telephone? In the past, most used a typing system called TTY. Paging devices soon followed; the term became so fixed that the deaf community is said to still call all wireless devices, including iPhones, “pagers.”

But the age of the video call has changed all that. Now, the deaf and hard of hearing routinely communicate by simply using sign language over a video call. When a deaf person wants to communicate with a hearing person, there are “relay services,” involving live translators proficient in sign language.

One smart thing Purple’s doing is pursuing what they call a “five-screen strategy.” What this means is that their customers can use Purple’s relay service on PC, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or TV. Here’s a YouTube video pitching SmartVP. Refreshingly, it’s not full of over-the-top music, like the majority of tech promotional fare out there.

The question that interests me most is how long companies like Purple Communications will offer premium services that the deaf community will find worth shelling out extra money for. One of the surprises of the iPad, as I’ve written about elsewhere, is that though it was designed for a broad consumer market, those with disabilities have found it more useful (and certainly much cheaper) than more specialized equipment.

At the end of the day, SmartVP is a videophone with apps. Isn’t that what just about everything is these days?

SmartVP touts its hardware with its new release. But I can’t help but suspect that the era of manufacturing specific hardware for the disabled is slowly drawing to an end; or at least, that the market will be contracting. Tech companies that may have once provided both specialized hardware and software may increasingly be dealing only in the latter.

Increasingly, the core affordances that technology offers the deaf and hard of hearing may be built into hardware as it ships. As one deaf person has written: “I strongly believe that this technology would be the best possible choice for us deaf consumers as it provides everything we need while being compatible with ‘everyone else.’”

Bobby Cox, the author of that post several years ago, wasn’t writing about SmartVP. He was writing about iOS’s FaceTime.

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From the latest smartphones to advances in quantum computing, the hardware behind today's digital age is rapidly changing.

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