VOICE Project and the European Year of People with Disabilities
European funding brings major research results on
European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin
Press release for the World Deafness Day
from the Web Site:
http://europa.eu.int/rapid/start/cgi/guesten.ksh?p_action.gettxt=gt&doc=IP/03/1183|0|RAPID&lg=EN (sito non c’è)
Brussels, 29 August 2003
Ahead of World Deafness Day on 1 September, the European Commission today underlined its commitment to funding research into this global problem. Deafness is a real and often underestimated health problem in Europe: 6% of the European population suffer from hearing impairment. It is now known that over 50% of all hearing impairments is caused by genetic factors. The European Commission has channelled more than 10 million into research on different aspects of deafness over the last 7 years. One particular project receiving support from the European Commission identified several genes which when affected lead to inherited deafness in humans. These discoveries increase significantly our understanding of the hearing process and open avenues for new therapies for deafness. Deafness also entails trouble in accessing information, communications and education. Through its VOICE project, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) is developing awareness of voice-to-text (VTT) technology among users, systems producers and suppliers. The objective is to provide cost-effective help for citizens with hearing difficulties to expand their communication abilities, adapt to the surrounding environment and improve their quality of life.
European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: “The number of patients suffering from hearing impairment is constantly growing due to increased noise pollution and to an ageing population. So far, apart from hearing aids, there is no remedy for deafness. Developing new therapies requires the best researchers from different countries and disciplines to work together in order to improve our knowledge of the hearing process and to identify the causes leading to deafness. This is precisely what the EU is doing through its research programmes.”
Deafness is a real heath problem in Europe
In Europe, 22.5 million individuals suffer form hearing impairment, with 2 million being profoundly deaf. In children, deafness impedes language acquisition and generates learning difficulties. In adults, if often leads to severe disruption of social links which very frequently results in depression. All together, in Europe, the financial cost of hearing impairment has been estimated to be €78 billion per year (based on average of €3,500 per patient annual costs for special education, speech therapy, hearing aids, physician and specialists fees, and other expenses). This is more than the combined economic costs of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal injury, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, this figure is likely to grow continuously in time due to noise pollution and ageing. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic disability following arthritis and hypertension.
European research on deafness
The European Commission has been supporting research into deafness for many years. In particular, the project “hereditary deafness” co-ordinated by Prof. Christine Petit (Pasteur Institute, Paris, France) allowed substantial progress in the understanding of the hearing process and in the identification of the genetic determinants of deafness. 50% of hearing deficiencies have a genetic origin. Importantly, this consortium of leading European researchers identified half of the 36 genes known to be associated with deafness. One of these genes, “connexin 26”, was found to be responsible for more than 30% of deafness cases in Europe.
The identification of the genetic determinants is crucial for diagnosing the underlying causes of deafness. These diagnostic tools are now available and can be used in a very large proportion of cases of deafness to identify the genetic origin of their hearing impairment.
Furthermore, this research has increased our knowledge of the hearing mechanism: i.e. how a soundwave can be transmitted from the outer ear to the inner ear and be sent to the brain as an electrical signal. These discoveries open new avenues for developing innovative therapies for deafness. Several mouse models have also been developed mimicking human hearing impairments. They will be very useful for testing new therapeutic approaches.
All together, this European effort has increased our knowledge on this important health problem. However, we are still far from understanding the complete picture and most importantly there is still a long way to go before we have new potential therapies for deafness. That is why the EU is ready to support research on deafness. The topic of deafness is explicitly addressed in the second call for proposals of the Sixth Framework Programme published in July 2003. In doing so, the Commission is inviting proposals for large European projects to study the hearing process and deafness.
JRC’s VOICE project
Hearing difficulties can inhibit educational progress, leading to vocational and economic difficulties, and even social isolation. Other signals may be needed to replace unheard sounds. Effective communications can be a major challenge: getting and giving information, exchanging ideas or sharing feelings whether in one-to-one contact, in groups, on the telephone or through TV and radio.
Technical innovations such as advanced communication systems, the Internet and the electronic media have a powerful influence on people’s lives. In a world in which communication happens increasingly by electronic and visual means, the JRC aims to stimulate Internet use, placing emphasis on problems encountered by the deaf to increase the impact of technologies to transmit information and facilitate learning.
Low cost, easy to use voice-to-text systems
VOICE is investigating speech recognition and developing user-friendly interfaces to translate the spoken voice into PC screen messages and subtitles. This can be performed for everyday activities such as conversation, lectures, phone calls and watching TV.
VTT recognition packages enable the creation of documents without using a keyboard, offering great advantages for the hearing, visually and physically impaired, as well as people without special needs. The JRC VOICE demonstrator turns voice-recognition engines into a subtitling system by integrating standard hardware and widely available software into flexible applications, ensuring low costs and ease of use. The prototype has been tested in real-life situations: subtitling conference speeches, school lessons and university lectures. A significant number of conferences have been organised to raise awareness in this new field. The Information Society DG has requested the VOICE ‘one design for all’ approach to extend the benefit of JRC research to other forms of disabilities.
Internet forum to define user requirements
VOICE concentrates on technical aspects, comparing rules, standards, approaches and activities in different countries to encourage research in this area. The aim is to unify associations, industry, schools, universities and public administrations interested in benefiting from such research through an Internet forum. This contributes to defining user requirements of the hearing impaired and others with special needs for information technology applications. Such activities are also a step towards European integration by helping overcome language and hearing barriers.
The JRC is collaborating with the Commission’s Enterprise DG, European standards organisation CENELEC and the European Broadcasting Union to develop standards and improve harmonisation of communications technologies. Reducing development and maintenance costs of VTT technologies and improving the quality of commercial products will help eliminate new barriers often created by novel information technology tools.
Contact is continuing with broadcasters and CENELEC to provide technical support that should help harmonise subtitling across European TV broadcasting. It is also increasing collaboration with universities to help students with hearing impairment through the use of subtitling for lectures.
More information about VOICE may be found at:
–> http://voice.jrc.it/ (Link italiano: http://www.voiceproject.eu/)
For more information related to deafness: