Taras was in his office in Tamarac near Fort Lauderdale while Anita was across town at their home. A flashing light had told Anita a call was ringing through on the TV.
Taras and Anita are both deaf. But thanks to new technology involving a videophone device mounted on top of both TVs, the couple are able to talk in real time in the method they are most accustomed to — American Sign Language.
And when they want to communicate with the hearing — their children in Washington state and New York City, for example — they place their call through a hearing ASL interpreter, trained to convey not only the words but the emotion of the caller as well. The ASL interpreter, who appears on the screen, simultaneously translates.
All it takes, said Taras Denis, is a TV, a high-speed Internet connection and the Sorenson VP100.
Called Sorensen Video Relay Service, this new system is far simpler and more efficient than the traditional text-based pagers or TTY, said Denis, employment specialist for the Center for Independent Living of Broward County.
It makes the phone as useful a tool for the deaf as for the hearing.
"I use the VP100 to call my doctor, to contact my dentist, to make appointments or reservations for restaurants, for a whole host of things. I even use it to order pizza. Last night, we ordered a mega meal pizza at the center here.
"You can even split the screen and watch a football game and talk at the same time," he said with a laugh.
While similar services are offered by AT&T and MCI, those utilize a computer rather than a TV, said Cameron Tingey, sales executive for Sorenson Media. (Sorenson also has a computer-based program.) The heart of the new service is the video compression technology packed into the VP100 videophone.
"We are able to take video and compress it small enough to send it through the Internet yet maintain the video quality," Tingey said. "Normally, a PC would have 15 frames per second, compared to 30 frames per second on the VP100."
The image, which can be as large as the TV screen, is clear and free of the graininess and jerky playback often associated with other systems. These are important factors when trying to follow signing and observe facial expressions, Taras Denis said.
The VP100, which has been on the market since March, has about 5,000 users nationwide, Tingey said. "We've put them on college campuses all across the country so deaf students can call home, order pizza, call the financial aid office."
The videophone appliance, calls and service are free. They are part of a federal program aimed at providing equal telecommunications access to the deaf and hard of hearing. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, all long-distance telephone companies are required to pay a percentage of money collected from phone customers into a national telecommunications relay services fund.
To access Sorenson's new service, the deaf need to provide their own TV with video input, and a broadband Internet connection.
Telecommunications giants such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint also have expanded beyond the simple text-based relay services that for so long were the primary method for the deaf and hard of hearing to talk by phone. These traditional systems, called TTY or TDD, require a phone attachment that allows typed conversation. Codes have to be typed in to indicate when one speaker is done and the other should begin. It's a slow, cumbersome process and in many ways a less satisfying way of communicating.
"When you type, most people type 60 to 65 words a minute," said Steve Lunceford, spokesman for Sprint. "We speak 100 to 150 words per minute. American Sign Language is comparable to that."
Video relay, whether displayed on a computer monitor or a TV screen, allows a conversation to proceed in real time. "You get a much more fluid conversation," said Lunceford. "You also get to introduce tone and expression into the conversation."
Like Sorensen, Sprint, which claims to be the nation's first video relay service provider, also has a service utilizing the TV monitor. Called SprintVRS.tv, it basically combines videoconferencing software with a videophone such as a D-Link i2eye device, which incidentally uses a Sorensen-developed chip.
For the computer-based system, deaf users need a computer, Web camera and a high-speed Internet connection. They log onto one of the provider Web sites, AT&T, MCI or Sprint, for instance, and connect with a video interpreter. They sign to the interpreter, who then places the call by phone and acts as translator between the deaf caller and the hearing person at the other end of the line.
There are limitations even with the new technology. First, VRS is not appropriate for emergency calls. Calling 911 on a phone or TTY relay service are better options. Also, interpreter assistance is not available 24/7. The hours vary depending on the service provider, and in some cases on the time zone. Also, callers may have to wait a few minutes for a video relay interpreter.
Kelby N. Brick, associate executive director for law and advocacy for the National Association of the Deaf, headquartered in Silver Spring, Md., applauds the growing number of VRS providers.
Trying to weigh the advantages of one over the other, Brick notes some providers have better video quality while others have better interpreters, better average speed of answering calls, or longer hours of service.
"Each service has specific areas that stand out," Brick said. "Continued development by all VRS providers will continue to bring more than 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans closer to functional equivalency in the area of telecommunications."