In 2010, I was frustrated with the DRM-riddled professional steno software I was using to caption for my Deaf and hard of hearing clients, and also worried that stenographic technology -- still the fastest, most accurate, and most efficient text entry method yet devised -- was being locked down by stifling proprietary interests. I decided I needed to open steno up to anyone who wanted to use it -- not just professionals, but amateurs, hobbyists, enthusiasts, and people who wanted conversational-speed text-to-speech. By an amazing stroke of luck, I found a developer with a PhD from the MIT Media Lab who agreed to build Plover according to my specifications for a tiny fraction of his usual fee. Five years later, I'm using Plover professionally in all my work, and there's a flourishing community of Plover users. Along the way, The Open Steno Project has also produced a free online textbook, several interactive games and tutorials, and a 3D-printed Arduino-based steno machine that's also fully open source.

How it works

Machine stenography is a chord-based input method, like a piano, which uses a customizable lexicon of English words and phrases mapped to stenographic codes. The Guinness world record holder for stenographic speed can input text at 360 words per minute, with 95% accuracy, and most professionals average around 220 to 240 words per minute. It's three to six times more ergonomically efficient than qwerty or Dvorak, and its layout also has a much smaller footprint than qwerty, making it useful for wearable applications.

Challenges I ran into

I wasn't able to code! Fortunately I've found some amazingly generous developers along the way who have helped me to realize this project. We're also working on finding new methods to level out the learning curve, which is still a bit steeper than I'd like. I think arcade-style video games have a huge potential to replace the tedious dictation-based speed drilling that current commercial steno schools tend to use.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of

Building a community of learners and enthusiasts, some of whom have gone on to become professional stenocaptioners. Inspiring hardware, software, and pedagogical applications. Bringing visibility to the often overlooked potential of this century-old technology.

What I learned

A lot of people are frustrated by the limitations of qwerty! Also, there are 35 million people with hearing loss in this country, and only about 2% know American Sign Language, but while there are 40,000 registered ASL interpreters, there are only about 400 certified realtime captioners! We need to increase these numbers fast, especially since 1 in 7 people have some degree of hearing loss, and that goes up to 1 in 3 people over 65. Without our aging population, it's unreasonable to expect everyone with hearing loss to learn ASL; captioning serves those people far better, and is also useful for people who are more fluent in written English than in spoken English, people with auditory processing disorders, people with ADHD, and people who want to use a written record of their communications to analyze later.

What's next for Open Steno Project

We want to build an arcade-style steno learning system that breaks the more complicated parts of stenography into addictive, bite-sized games. We'll be releasing the Stenosaurus soon, which is the second open source hardware offering after the 3D printed StenoBoard. We want to increase the number and breadth of our learning tools to make learning steno even easier than before. We're hoping that there's a new cheap successor to Microsoft's $45 Sidewinder X4, which brought the cost of learning steno down from thousands of dollars to less than $50. Currently the cheapest keyboard that works with Plover is around $100, but with any luck that will change. Mainly we just want to get the word out about the power and efficiency of steno for coding, chatting, writing novels, text-to-speech, and anything else that involves electronic text!

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