According to the World Health Organization, over 400 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss. Many of the rest of us have at least limited hearing impairment. So it makes sense that with phones being at the center of our electronic life, phone makers would innovate in providing solutions to help. Today, Google released two applications it first teased at I/O last year to do just that. Sound Amplifier provides a customized hearing assist for phone users, while Live Transcribe can print out on your display a transcription of whatever it hears through your phone’s microphone.
Google’s Sound Amplifier
With enough noise in the background, everyone starts to have difficulty following a conversation. On top of that, a large number of us have various forms of hearing impairments — especially age-related, high-frequency hearing loss. Now that so much of our world comes in through our phones, it makes sense for the phone to be at the center of addressing the issue. Google’s new Sound Amplifier is an Accessibility setting that will amplify and shape the sound picked up by your phone’s microphone and play it into your headphones.
Google doesn’t try to position Sound Amplifier as an alternative to a dedicated hearing aid, but perhaps as a backup solution or for those who don’t have a serious enough problem to wear a hearing aid all the time. For now, the technology is limited to Android Pie phones with wired headphones (cue snarky comments about the lack of a headphone jack on your otherwise favorite phone). Needing to use Sound Amplifier with a wired connection makes it a little less convenient than Apple’s Live Listen that works with wireless AirPods. Google’s Sound Amplifier does run locally on the phone, so there is no need for an internet connection.
Google’s Live Transcribe
If your hearing loss is so severe that even augmented headphones aren’t enough to make sense of someone speaking to you, Live Transcribe may be very helpful. Once you launch the app, it attempts to transcribe whatever it hears through your phone’s microphone and shows it on your phone’s display. Currently, it’s in a limited beta; Live Transcribe Beta is rolling out via the Play store and will come pre-installed on Pixel 3 phones. I was able to run it successfully on phones running both Android 8 and Android 9. You’ll also need an internet connection to allow the transcription software to run in the cloud. As far as potential privacy issues, Google says it doesn’t store your transcripts. Live Transcribe currently supports more than 70 languages and is able to work with two of them at once if needed.
So far, you can’t do much except look at the transcript, and you can scroll forward and back while you’re recording. But I expect additional features will appear over time. In particular, separating the speech from multiple people speaking would be a natural extension. From a quick test, it does a similar job to the inexpensive automatic transcription tools available on the web. So it would be a big help for anyone very hard of hearing, but it isn’t perfect. I played a recording of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into it and it only missed two words, although it made a number of punctuation errors.
How Do They Stack Up?
Like many of Google’s advanced capabilities, the best thing about these apps is their price. They’re free and easy to set up. But they are much more limited than dedicated solutions. For example, a pair of IQBuds is wireless and has a broader array of features. And Audeara’s headphones can store a profile that you can then use wired or over Bluetooth with all your devices, not just your phone. I expect phone vendors to begin to work more closely with hearing solution providers, the way Apple has started to with its Made for iPhone hearing aid program.