In nod to deaf viewers, YouTube adds captions to millions of videos

YouTube's automatic caption tool, which was previously restricted to a handful of channels, is set to go into wide-release.

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    YouTube will expand its auto-captioning service, the Google-owned company announced Thursday.
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YouTube will expand its auto-captioning service – currently available only on select YouTube channels – to tens of millions of videos, the Google-owned company announced on Thursday. In a blog post, YouTube reps said the move would make the entire library accessible to deaf and hearing-impaired users, and allow creators to reach "a whole new global audience."

Last year, YouTube rolled out the auto-caps system, which uses Google's automatic speech recognition technology, to a handful of media outlets, including National Geographic and PBS. The technology scans videos, isolates speech, and churns out captions along the bottom of the screen. "I see the addition of automatic captioning as a huge step forward," Google software engineer Ken Harrenstien wrote when the service launched.

Now YouTube says it hopes to process scores of videos in the next few months, eventually introducing captions in a range of languages. In an interview with a reporter for the BBC, Angel Harrington, a student at the California School for the Deaf, said YouTube would be providing an invaluable service. "Now we really can completely understand what is going on and we feel like we are on an equal playing field," Harrington said.

Of course, as YouTube has acknowledged, the captions won't be perfect. In some cases, the company pointed out, "the audio file may not be good enough to generate auto-captions. But please be patient – our speech recognition technology gets better every day." YouTube says that content creators will be able to correct or refine incorrect captions.

Over at PC World, Jeff Bertolucci writes that "the wide availability of this tool will certainly benefit content owners, who can easily and quickly make their videos accessible to a worldwide audience." Still, as Bertolucci jokes, "a poorly translated video could lead to some troubling international incidents."

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