Over 750 000 people in the European Union are deaf or hard of hearing. This places significant strain on interpretation services for everyday communication and access to them varies greatly by region and language, often needing to be booked well in advance.
These are exactly the challenges Finnish company Signmark Production wants to tackle with its mobile video calling app Chabla. The app connects anyone using sign language directly with an international network of interpreters and enables its users to make and receive interpreted calls whenever they want.
“Without Chabla it is almost impossible for someone who does not know sign language to call a deaf person,” says Marko Vuoriheimo, CEO of Signmark Productions. “I have heard this explanation many times from people who say they cannot communicate with me. This app not only empowers the sign language community but enables everyday communication.”
So how does Chabla work in practice? The user opens the app, chooses who they want to call and which sign language they would like to use (there are hundreds of sign languages in the world) and waits for the app to find a suitable interpreter. When the interpreter is found, the call is connected to the recipient and charged on pay-per-minute basis.
Chabla users can also have their own virtual number which allows them to receive interpreted calls.
Chabla stems from Vuoriheimo’s own experiences. Vuoriheimo was born deaf and today is best known as Signmark, the first deaf rapper to sign a recording deal with a major international label. But he grew tired of problems with calling and receiving calls from people who do not know sign language, so in 2015 started to develop Chabla in cooperation with IT services firm CGI.
“I started to feel the same two problems: old technology and availability of interpreters have existed for a long time,” Vuoriheimo explains. “Now I can use the video calling service instantly and take care of errands in my own native language, signing.”
A key focus in the development process has been to ensure Chabla works internationally and offers premium video quality. The service was tested with various user groups in different countries before it launched for iOS devices in Denmark, France, Finland, Germany and the UK last November.
“The feedback has been very positive,” Vuoriheimo enthuses. “Mostly it has been about the technology. Many deaf people have used video calling services actively for a long time and they have noticed the likes of Skype and Facetime cannot compete with Chabla in video quality.”
Not only for the deaf
While Chabla’s primary target group is people using sign language, there is also growing demand for expanding the service to spoken languages. Vuoriheimo has already been approached by one country’s officials interested in offering interpreting services for immigrants through Chabla.
“Many immigrants have said they would need a similar service for spoken languages so there is definitely demand for a multi-lingual service,” he explains. “It is a big potential customer base.”
But while this might be a future addition, for now Signmark Productions’ focus is on continued development of Chabla, launching it for Android devices and raising funding to expand the app to new countries. It will also grow the app’s network of certified interpreters so it can eventually offer a truly 24/7 service everywhere.
“Of course every entrepreneur’s dream is to have their product in every country,” Vuoriheimo says. “That people everywhere would have Chabla on their phones and especially people who have friends or relatives with different native languages, who would benefit from the service.”