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Trouble hearing that caller? Phone captions your calls

Ensemble from Plantronics lets hearing-impaired people read conversations in real time while getting amplified sound.


LAS VEGAS--My stepfather doesn't have the best hearing, and phone calls can be a trial. He tends to crank the speakerphone volume to MAX.

Clarity, a division of Plantronics, is trying to help the tens of millions of people with hearing loss with its new Ensemble phone, which displays real-time captions of what the other person on the line is saying.

Developed with ClearCaptions, the Ensemble is an amplified phone with a 7-inch touch-screen tablet display for the captions.

While there are other caption phones on the market, the Ensemble is being billed as the first of its kind with a tablet interface, and is on display at CES 2013.

Unfortunately you can't take the Android tablet out of the phone, but you can crank Ensemble's volume up to 50 decibels, which is as loud as ambient conversation.

When users make or take calls, the other party's words appear in real time on the display in a large font. The screen doubles as an interface with large, easy-to-read menu options.

Before you think it's a voice recognition system like Siri, there's actually a human in the loop at all times.

ClearCaptions is certified by the FCC to caption conversations for hearing-impaired people. All calls are routed through calling centers, where captioners listen in and repeat what they hear to a voice-recognition system.

The output shows up on Ensemble; a demo wasn't possible at CES due to poor connectivity in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

The phone can also save important captions, such as directions or appointments.

Paid for by the FCC, which collects funds from telecoms, the captioning service is free to users. The phone just requires a landline and a broadband connection for the captions.

"Captioning with voice recognition software is still too inaccurate," says Frank Endres of ClearCaptions. "Our service has to meet certain standards to avoid mistakes and delays."

The Ensemble is launching this week for $229. Check out the promo vid below.

Correction: The price of the Ensemble was corrected to $229.