Thisten Audio-to-Text at SXSW 2020
The importance of accessibility continues to be a big focus of conference programming at SXSW. Likewise, one of the larger initiatives for the 2020 event is integrating a cool new app called Thisten into the onsite experience for many of the Keynotes and Featured Sessions, panels and presentations. To get more details on what this app does and how it will be used at this year’s event, we talked with Co-Founder Liz Jackson and CEO Ben Grynol.
What does accessibility mean to you?
Liz Jackson: As the concept of accessibility seems to be a growing trend, the purpose it serves seems to be getting misconstrued. The first thing someone should ask themselves is whether or not they’re actually talking about accessibility, or if they’re using the word accessibility to avoid saying the word disability. Accessibility is one component of disability, one that ensures equitable entry into a space. But the question we must ask ourselves is this: how many ramps does it take to ensure a disabled person has a seat at the table?
How is the push to gain more accessible tech systems similar / dissimilar to other current efforts at increased diversity and inclusion?
Liz Jackson: We have learned there is no difference, which leads us to ask ourselves a number of questions: Who is leading the effort? Are the people who are demanding change being siloed? Have goals been re-contextualized? We are required to ask these questions because many companies continue to position disabled people as recipients of technology, rather than drivers of innovation.
With this ongoing goal of better accessibility in mind, what is Thisten? Ben Grynol: Thisten is an audio-to-text platform that transcribes speaker sessions at conferences to make them more accessible.
Who is the target audience for Thisten?
Ben Grynol: We don’t label specific audiences that Thisten is or isn’t intended for. Conference and event organizers have been quick to embrace the platform, because it ushers in levels of access that they haven’t traditionally planned for, specifically in regards to deaf and hard of hearing attendees. So, while organizers seem to feel that Thisten addresses just one specific use case, it has somehow also begun to incentivize them to prioritize other forms of access, create goals and policies, and make those accessibility policies publicly available.
How big a market to see for an app like Thisten?
Ben Grynol: The Language Services Industry is a ~$56B market globally, and it’s growing by ~20% per year. We’re building a new vertical within the industry, since our platform is focused on both the creation and aggregation of text-based content.
How does Thisten differ from other speech-to-text transcription products?
Ben Grynol: We’re creating a platform that has unlimited scale to it, through the tech infrastructure that we’re building. Thisten has proven to be 10x faster, 10x less expensive, and 10x more valuable than traditional transcription services, where human resources are required for execution.
Where does the name Thisten come from?
Liz Jackson: The name Thisten actually came to me in my first call with you, Hugh. In trying to explain my idea, I felt that I needed to give it a name. And the word Thisten (This + Listen) popped into my head. I was trying to describe the physical act of listening.
What kind of events have you used Thisten at?
Ben Grynol: We currently have partners in 10 countries, and have done everything from Finance Events, to Academic Conferences, to Scientific & Healthcare Meetings. The events that we tend to work with the most right now are tech, design, and startup events.
What has been the general reaction to Thisten at these events?
Liz Jackson: Response to Thisten has felt to me like a convergence of skepticism and excitement. Disabled people have grown accustomed to big promises that fade away. And yet, when many of my disabled peers try Thisten, there’s been enough optimism that they ask me ‘what can I do to help?’
Thisten was used in a limited fashion at SXSW 2019. Tell us more about that deployment.
Ben Grynol: It went well overall — our product was incredibly simple at the time. We didn’t encounter any major bugs, and got some good feedback from audience members, which allowed us to develop the product further. SXSW 2019 was a great launching pad for us to get some traction, and we were grateful for the opportunity.
How will Thisten be used at the 2020 SXSW Conference?
Ben Grynol: Ben Grynol: For 2020, myself and Sudeep Sidhu and Rui Melo (who are also co-founders of Thisten) have worked closely with the SXSW team to figure out a scope of execution that would be manageable and impactful. This year, most of the Keynote and Featured Speaker sessions will be transcribed in real time via Thisten, and we will also offer this service for many of the accessibility-related sessions. Additionally, we will work to accommodate requests that have been made through the SXSW team to have specific sessions transcribed. If anyone is curious as to which sessions will be transcribed through Thisten, they can look for the CC caption in the online schedule, or visit the Accessibility Desk in the Registration / Badge Pick-Up area on the first floor of the Austin Convention Center.
What are Thisten’s goal for the next few 12 months?
Ben Grynol: We’re focused on getting traction and growing consistently, week over week, with new event partners around the world. As well, we have an ambitious product roadmap to ensure that both our product and partner growth keeps pace with each other.
I understand that Seth Godin is a big supporter of Thisten. How did he get involved with this project?
Liz Jackson: Seth has an incredible podcast, called Akimbo, that we listen to every week. We use Thisten to transcribe it. He appreciates our transcriptions — and we appreciate his teachings.
Aside from Thisten, what are your favorite accessibility-related apps, tools and services?
Liz Jackson: The Internet, the iPhone touchscreen and cruise control — all of which were created by disabled people.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.