* Be sure to check out this month's Tech-Savvy Interpreter video premiering on April 18.
**Full disclosure: In 2011, I helped design, test and launch the ZipDX Multilingual platform. Therefore, this article could never be a completely unbiased review. In fact, since I am so close to this technology, I have hesitated to write about ZipDX in the Tech-Savvy Interpreter in the past, although it is arguably the oldest remote simultaneous interpretation platform on the market today. So, don't take my words at face value. I encourage you to verify all the assertions made in this month's column.
Whenever I learn about a new interpreting delivery platform (IDP), one of the first questions I ask is, 'What's your main use case?' Any interpreting platform that boasts the ability to provide any kind of interpreting, in any language, anytime and anywhere, makes me wonder if they have done their homework and have a clearly defined use case that they have designed their platform around. ZipDX understood the importance of focusing on a specific use case from the very beginning, and their IDP shows it.
ZipDX was founded in 2007 by telecommunications veteran David Frankel as a next-generation audio conferencing company. That's right, audio, plain and simple. And there's a reason for that. Despite all the Internet-based communication technologies available today, the phone is still the preferred method the world over for voice communications. Large parts of the globe still do not have dependable broadband Internet connections to use the many VoIP and WebRTC services currently available. What is more, the telephone is still the only truly universal communications network where anyone can pick up their phone and call any other phone on the planet.
The multilingual side of ZipDX started in 2011, when the company was approached by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to use ZipDX for remote participation by delegates in its Geneva-based meetings in the six official UN languages. ZipDX's multi-channel audio platform was paired with Adobe Connect to make remote participation possible. However, this is an entirely different use case from the one I want to focus on in this column, but it is what led to the creation of the remote simultaneous interpretation platform I'm focusing on today.
The Use Case
Remote simultaneous interpretation for virtual meetings, particularly conference calls, is where the ZipDX Multilingual platform really shines. Think of a conference call where the participants can connect from anywhere by phone. They are connected by either conference phone, landline or cell phone. Participants may also connect by VoIP using a soft phone on a computer. Simultaneous interpreters connect to the call using a computer with a broadband Internet connection and a USB headset. ZipDX provides a multi-channel audio bridge that allows callers to listen to and speak in their preferred language, just as if they were participating in a multilingual meeting at the United Nations or the European Union, for example. If you'd like a more detailed explanation of the IDP design, you can go here.
These virtual meetings usually last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. They are not designed to replace face-to-face meetings. Adding remote simultaneous interpretation to them extends language services to a meeting format (conference calls) where it was not technically feasible in the past. Although these calls are much shorter than a normal full day of conference interpreting, they tend to be more frequent and often take place regularly (e.g. once a week or month, or quarterly). So, interpreters may actually end up interpreting the same participants frequently for the same client, and that familiarity makes the task easier over time. As more multilingual communication goes virtual, it only makes sense that interpreting services need to follow, otherwise the profession will not evolve and adapt to new forms of communication.
Wideband Audio (aka HD Voice)
Audio quality is an important part of any meeting with simultaneous interpretation, whether face-to-face or virtual. The quality of the interpretation (and sanity of the interpreter) depends on it. The ZipDX platform can send and receive wideband audio (often referred to as HD Voice). Traditional telephones are limited to a frequency range of 300 Hz to 3.4 kHz, called narrowband. HD Voice expands that frequency range in both directions to 50 Hz and to 7kHz, respectively. This is a huge improvement and much closer to the range of the human voice (75 Hz to 14 kHz). As a side note, the fundamental parts of an average man's speaking voice is between 85 Hz and 155 Hz and an average woman's between 165 Hz and 255 Hz. Some interpreters maintain that HD Voice is still unacceptable, as it cannot capture the full range of what humans can hear (theoretically 20 Hz to 20 kHz). My own experience and that of other interpreters working with HD Voice for several years now would seem to prove otherwise. Regardless, HD voice is a huge improvement over traditional narrowband audio.
That does not mean that all connections on a conference call will have HD Voice quality. If a participant connects with a traditional landline, the audio will be narrowband. And if a caller connects with a low-quality cell phone in an airport, well...you get the picture.
With Great Power Comes Great...Complexity
The ZipDX Multilingual platform is powerful and has many features that help fine tune the participants' and the interpreters' experience like individual volume control for each connection, hard mute and soft mute of audio, multi-channel recording, a waiting room feature, one-way glass for focus groups, and a slew of other features. I don't want to get too far into the tall grass by explaining each feature, so I'll limit this first look to two key interfaces for the interpreter-the Dashboard and the ZipLine Virtual Interpreter Console. The ZipDX dashboard and interpreter console aren't flashy but they are useful and easy to use.
A few minutes before an interpreted conference call begins, interpreters use an internet browser to log into and view the call dashboard. The dashboard provides a wealth of information about the call-the names of call invitees, who has connected, what language channel each participant is listening to, and how they are connected to the conference bridge (i.e. by cell phone, landline or VoIP). It includes and activity window showing the name of each participant as he/she talks and includes a multi-tab chat window that interpreters use while they are working as a back channel for communication among themselves and with the conference moderator or host.
The dashboard provides broad situational awareness to the interpreters as they interpret without any visuals of the call participants. Keep in mind that the call participants do not see each other either, as they are connected by phone. The dashboard also has a feature that indicates when a participant connected via VoIP over the Internet has connectivity problems like a slow or unstable connection, which helps isolate and identify problems so they can be addressed.
ZipLine Virtual Interpreter Console
The ZipLine 3.0 Virtual Interpreter Console is designed to mimic the interpreter console found in a typical conference interpreting booth. It has been designed for simplicity and ease of use. It uses a simple color scheme to indicate when interpreting is on or off and the mic is open or muted (Red: off, muted / Green: on, unmuted). It also includes clear buttons to switch directions when working in a bilingual booth. ZipLine can also be configured to work with a traditional 'pure booth' setup with relay.
While bilingual conference calls are the most common, multilingual calls do happen frequently, some with nine languages or more. In theory, the ZipDX platform can handle interpretation in and out of 48 different languages on one conference call. However, the complexity of providing remote interpreting for such a virtual meeting is mind boggling.
ZipLine is based on WebRTC technology and requires that the interpreter use the Google Chrome browser.
Websharing, Video and Other Bells and Whistles
ZipDX has a suite of other features that make it a powerful collaboration tool. Like many other online collaboration platforms, it has screen sharing capabilities and can handle up to three simultaneous video streams from participants' webcams. If there are more than three participants connected via video, the system prioritizes the video of the three most recent speakers. Of course, all these additional features require both interpreters and meeting participants to be in front of their computers and connect to the platform through a web browser. If meeting participants actually use all these features, this substantially changes the original use case.
As a side note, using all of these features is great for teaching simultaneous interpreting online, but I have to leave that use case for a future column.
If I Had My Druthers...
One of the drawbacks of the current ZipDX configuration is that the dashboard, the ZipLine virtual interpreter console and the Webshare window (screen sharing and video feeds) are all separate. When interpreting for a conference call, you have to keep track of all the windows you are using and size them so they fit on the screen. With the dashboard and ZipLine, one screen is enough, but if you need to see the Webshare or video too, it's better to have two screens.
In the future, I'd like to see the interpreter console incorporated into the dashboard so all it takes is one click to open both. For single-screen setups, it would be good to have an 'always on top' option so that the interpreter console doesn't get lost behind other open windows.
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