The Ongoing Evolution of Subtitling Technology

Dean Wales

Author: Dean Wales

Published: 07 June 2018

The Ongoing Evolution of Subtitling Technology

As a subtitling technology developer and manufacturer we’re currently and frequently hearing remarks along the lines of us ‘having it easy’ at the moment. This has typically spun out from the fact that there hasn’t been any really significant and therefore demanding technology shifts in the industry that have affected us for a while.

In the past we’ve had to rise to the challenge of the likes of the SD to HD switchover, OTT, 4K and 3D; yes we even developed a solution for subtitles in the three-dimensional TV space. Believe it or not those two lines of text can get in the way of content in 3D presentations if not placed correctly. Poor placement could also make the viewer feel nauseas. With our solution we made sure that never happened. Sadly now that’s all in the past.

Now instead of core technology presenting us with such challenges it is market demand. It’s no longer changes in tech and standards that are making us adapt and reform, it’s changes in what the customer needs and wants.

For starters Screen has developed software for the professional subtitler which has over time earned the reputation of being an industry standard. Nothing has changed there as such but the folk using it have.

Being a subtitler is not what it used to be. Rates they can charge, the way and frequency in which work is distributed and a whole raft of other factors has completely altered, putting additional pressures on these professionals.

The need to subtitle has also increased. Video content is used in so many more places now and indeed businesses are told that they’re heading for commercial damnation unless they have explainer and corporate videos on their websites. And yes, it’s advised they really should carry captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and for places where it’s unacceptable to have the sound on. This doesn’t only receive a big tick for being accessible; it’s also really good for SEO on your website ranking.

At various trade shows recently we have spoken to more people than ever who are now using increasing amounts of video and who want to or are legally obliged to subtitle them. These have included the likes of academic bodies and religious organisations.

So what has this meant to us?

Our software for the creation and preparation of subtitle files has been developed with subtitlers over a period of many years to ensure outstanding efficiency and high accuracy; it’s feature-rich professional software.

With ‘casual’ and professional subtitlers alike wanting to use our software but with some also finding it difficult to justify a one-off payment for a full licence version we clearly needed to review how we sold the product. We wanted to allow this customer segment to continue to benefit from it and as a result to have more content subtitled. That can only be a good thing.

Since then we have reviewed and adjusted our licensing on the software – which has also now been rolled out on some other products from our range – to make it available on a convenient subscription basis from 1 month to 6 and 12 months. This fits much better with the irregular project flow of some of the professionals and the ‘pay-as-you-go’ style of shorter subscriptions is desirable for the more casual requirements.

The expanding requirement in the market has resulted in possibly one of our toughest challenges though.

Oddly however it isn’t a new request; it is something we have been asked for over many years. You may well question then why we haven’t developed it before. That’s simple. Screen has a reputation for reliability and accuracy and third-party technology hasn’t until now been available to allow us to take what we consider to be a good enough product to market.

Sometimes referred to in our sector of the industry as the ‘Holy Grail’, fully automated live subtitling has been the solution many have desired for a lot of years but truthfully automatic speech recognition just didn’t live up to our high standards. We were not prepared to release something that couldn’t meet customer expectation of a Screen product.

Currently live subtitling is a tough ask but is delivered to a very good standard by teams of highly trained professionals. Â The relatively high cost and diminishing numbers of steno typists / subtitlers has made way more for respeakers (or Voice Writers in the USA) to transcribe, edit and create subtitles in real-time.

Being able to support these professionals and indeed in some but by all means not all instances replacing them with a fully automated system has long been a dream solution.

This kind of product has been in our sights for a long time now and has been something we have touched on developing but have considered not good enough to continue with until now.

Screen was fortunate enough to meet the team at the Cambridge based Speechmatics who is at the forefront of automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology and who offers a level of speed and accuracy considered good enough to be integrated into one of our products.

Presently in an advanced stage of development we have taken a preview of our Automatic Live Subtitling product to both IBC and NAB with a view to discussing at length with customers their likely requirements. How, where and when they would intend using it, their expectation of accuracy and speed are all factors that mean we deliver as complete a product as possible.

Although at the moment this kind of technology can not totally replace a skilled live subtitler we are certainly at an encouraging stage in its development and with the rate ASR technology is progressing, the future looks very promising indeed.

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