A small Suffolk village is home to a company at the forefront of the global subtitling industry
PUBLISHED: 12:43 24 July 2018 | UPDATED: 12:46 24 July 2018
The Suffolk village of Claydon is home to a company that pioneered the world’s first electronic subtitling system, and in doing so, transformed the way that deaf people were able to watch television.
Forty years later, Screen Systems is about to revolutionise the subtitling industry once again - this time by means of artificial intelligence.
In 1976, a BBC employee called Laurie Atkin set up his company Screen Electronics (now Screen Systems) from his Suffolk home. From there, he manufactured the electronic subtitling system he’d invented and exported it to television companies across the world. “Before then, subtitling used to be done on a card, which was photographed and then overlaid manually,” explained the company’s head of communications, Dean Wales. “Making it electronic made it much easier for broadcasters to provide subtitling.”
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Screen continued to lead the market, developing a number of new subtitling technologies including the first PC-based subtitle preparation system and the first multi-channel, multi-language subtitling systems. Now, the flat black box it produces for subtitling is used by about 76% of the world’s broadcasters, and not just for the hard of hearing. “More often than not it’s used for translating,” Mr Wales said. “Discovery Channel for example can’t always afford to dub their shows, so they just put subtitles on.”
Screen Systems has had an eclectic mix of owners in the past, including Bono from U2’s investment company Elevation Partners and the French investment bank BNP Paribas. Its current parent company, the LA-based SDI Media, is the world’s biggest translation and dubbing studio owners.
Mr Wales thinks most people assume subtitling is just about “sticking words up on a screen,” but it involves far more work than that. “They’re a creative bunch, and if you suggested that, they’d slap you!” the 48 year-old joked.
Screen Systems has been working with the Cambridge company Speechmatics to create “the holy grail” of subtitling - a software that uses artificial intelligence to give what Mr Wales calls “the most accurate speech to text engine ever seen.” The new product is being launched at a trade show in Amsterdam this September.
But aren’t there other tech companies out there with the same mission? Yes, Mr Wales admitted - “but not to the level we are. We’ve been doing subtitling for over 40 years, so we’re the experts. We’re not scared of the competition, because we realise how difficult this industry is.”
While the new software is ideal for live studio broadcasts, “outside Westminster, with the noise of sirens and shouting, the quality of the subtitles will be less impressive,” Mr Wales acknowledged. “But this is the first step in automating the process.”
The industry disruption would lead to job cuts, although there will always be a need for “theatrical subtitlers” working with film directors on different scenes. “But any subtitling that requires a quick turnaround will all be automated,” Mr Wales added.
Screen Systems is also working with Ipswich company IJYI on software for freelance videographers and vloggers to subtitle their videos offline.
With the demise of traditional television, thanks to online streaming and Cloud-based technology, the pace of industry change has been dramatic, says Mr Wales. “In three to four months, the whole industry switched and we were running around like headless chickens. From working with the Discovery Channel and the BBC, we’re now working with people we never thought we would be, such as commercial businesses and videographers.”
As well as being used by the UK’s 11 million people who are hard of hearing, subtitling is also becoming more popular with the mainstream audience thanks to the popularity of Scandinavian shows such as The Bridge and Wallander. “People are now used to watching videos with subtitles on their social media now too,” Mr Wales added.
But despite all the change, Screen Systems remains rooted to Mr Atkin’s purpose - to help deaf people access the same entertainment as everyone else. That’s why Mr Wales is a trustee for Ipswich deaf centre, and is learning sign language himself. “I’m pretty fluent these days,” he said. “Even though the translation side is probably more lucrative, we still hang on to the reason why we were created.”