Opinion

Liam O’Dell: Google invited me to test our Live Transcribe – here’s what I think

Just how good are Google’s captioning capabilities? Well, we’ve all forayed onto YouTube and depended on automatic captions to understand the bare minimum, but even that automatic speech recognition technology – while it has improved over time – leaves a lot to be desired. For those wishing to invest in Google’s Android phones, there’s similar tools: Live Transcribe and Live Caption.

The invitation to try out these features on the Google Pixel 6 Pro came just a few days before the start of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week, and I received the phone slap bang in the middle of it. First impressions were strong, as I admired its huge screen which slightly wraps around the sides, and its camera capabilities. My long-term commitment, the iPhone, has the edge in that regard (Android comes with a slight blur on its viewfinder), but its Motion settings and 360 degree settings are unique to its hardware.

The downsides – of which there are, tragically, many – include an oversensitive fingerprint scanner which fails to recognise your index finger more times than it does, a disorientating Maps app which doesn’t completely take you to your desired location, and a power off setting which is far from convenient. You have to press down on the power and volume button at the same time, and maybe it’s my dyspraxia or declining motor abilities revealing itself here, but it’s impossible to apply the right pressure on both buttons from one finger or thumb alone. Instead, I ended up opting for a menu which lingers on the right side of my screen, next to Live Transcribe – one which ultimately requires more buttons to perform the simple act of turning off a phone than one would typically expect.

Speaking of Live Transcribe, let’s finally talk about the feature which led to Google kindly sending me the Pixel in the first place. The areas in which I could supposedly use the feature are endless, and over the course of a handful of days testing out the tech, many circumstances presented themselves. I was making several train journeys with inaccessible tannoy announcements, and when in the welcoming walls of a theatre foyer, it was hard to hear the call for the audience to take their seats when it was drowned out by the social chatter of others.

Disappointingly, Live Transcribe failed in both of these situations. As an aside, it would also fail to transcribe mobile calls, as described.

And know that I say this as an individual who acknowledges and brushes aside his Apple bias when writing this. I was hoping the tech – designed with the help of Gallaudet University – would do what my (and many other) hearing aids could not, and make out a single voice among the background noise. It failed, instead choosing to inform me there was wind in the background when listening out for the tube announcement, and that there may have been a crowd nattering in the foyer.

Well, duh.

I soon learned it was better for the conversations which are closer to the microphone – an obvious and fair technical requirement which I’ll grant – but for Deaf people like me with residual hearing, it’s often the case that our hearing is somewhat dependant on proximity to the source of the sound. I have no doubt there could be greater benefits for profoundly deaf individuals, however.

Where this technology excelled for me, though, was in the form of Live Captions, capable of transcribing media playing out on the phone. There’s no denying that for the longer, uncaptioned YouTube videos where automatic captions fail, Live Captions offer a sufficient last resort.

I should mention that I was offered the opportunity to speak to the Google employee responsible for the Live Transcribe feature – and I would have asked him about the difference between Live Transcribe and automatic captions, and whether they use the same technology – but I am yet to be given a time for an interview.

There is, however, one app I’ll look to use even when my SIM card is back in the reassuring confines of my iPhone, and that’s Recorder. Granted, rival applications such as Otter offer some respite for the journalists who hate transcriptions, but that only covers you on the free plan for 30 minutes. There are no limits to Recorder, and its accuracy is impressive.

How I wish I could use that adjective to describe my experience with the Pixel 6 Pro and Live Transcribe as a whole.

Initially published on The Limping Chicken on 9 May 2022.

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