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The STAMP* journey

‘* the Subtitling Text Add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint 2010


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I have an awesome job. It’s a great combination of working with technology and helping people; a base of creativity and problem solving, and a thick crust of building cool stuff. Most of the time it’s about technology and its ability to influence our everyday lives... so when I heard that our brief was to build an add-in that imports TTML files and creates ‘closed captions’ in PowerPoint I started thinking about technology...

We’d need Visual Studio and the Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) to build the add-in... we’d use the PowerPoint object model for interacting with the slide, and for creating text boxes... I wondered how easy it would be to add them to the animation sequence. All seemingly important at the time.

The other great thing about my job is that with technology the short answer is always “yes” – so we were quickly confident that we should be able to build it. I thought about who might use the add-in and decided it would be a handful of specialised users who create subtitles.

I then started to wonder what TTML was, and for that matter what is a ‘closed caption’!?

TTML stands for “Timed Text Mark-up Language”: an xml derivative that allows for the definition of timed text (the presentation of text media in synchrony with other media, such as audio and video).  After a brief look at the many pages of standard we hoped an existing library was available to read the file and present to us an easier to use object hierarchy (thankfully the answer was yes!).

Closed captions I figured must be sub-titles, and that was close – although "closed" in closed captioning denotes that viewers can choose to see / activate the captions.  Conversely subtitles are generally used where the viewer is able to hear but cannot understand (perhaps due to accent or environment).

So this must be for ‘hearing impaired’ people... or is it more correct to say ‘deaf’?

As we always do, we started to identify the tasks needed to be completed to build a TTML importing add-in for PowerPoint. We noted things that we needed more information on and then set about guess-timating how long each would take. We prototyped to remove the unknown; we started to understand the PowerPoint object model better and things fell into place. A TTML library was found to take care of reading a complex file structure (and converting it into something we can use for creating captions) and soon we were well on the way to having a working solution to import files (and to be fair, supporting a sub-set of the total TTML standard).

It wasn’t long before we realised that whilst some people might have TTML files for their audio and video files – there were likely to be more people out there with the need to add captions to their presentations. So a caption editor was added to the project… which added a number of technical challenges to be overcome (short answer: “yes”) and soon we had built a simple caption editor to complement the ability to import. After creating a demo using the tool we felt that creating captions in our editor wasn’t as easy as perhaps it could be, so we considered usage and added several shortcut keys to [hopefully] make things easier and quicker to create captions!

We felt good about what we’d achieved and decided a quick demo at our team meeting was in order.  I used the add-in to caption lyrics, and then opened PowerPoint to show the caption editor and made a few general comments about how it worked. Since this is a technology company, I expected there to be little more detail needed than that. I was more than a little surprised with the level of interest. We discussed the possible application and probable implications and the [obvious] things that it would support: captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired; translation of audio / video to another language; adding to supplement training and teaching (at all levels).

It began to dawn on me that whilst we had physically implemented a technology solution, what we’d actually done was create a tool that could make the audible content used frequently in presentations accessible to all (and not biased to those that could [literally] hear it). I’ve used audio and video for years in my presentations (with several presentations not requiring me to speak at all) but I’d never thought about the many (many) thousands of people that I had inadvertently ‘excluded’ by doing so.

Odds are high that you are part of the vast majority of people who can hear – and have probably never really considered not being able to hear (or see for that matter)... and odds are equally high that you probably don’t give much (any?) thought to how accessible your presentations are.

About time we started to consider that... don’t you think?

Like many developers I began a career in software development to help other people (and to remove mundane & repetitive tasks!) but this might well be the first thing that I’ve built that could make a positive contribution to the lives of many (many) thousands of people... ‘just’ by making the process of importing or creating captions in PowerPoint easier. This week I think I might be part of something that could have a positive impact for a lot of people. Humbling, and very, very awesome.

You can read about the details of using STAMP here and download it here... the add-in was announced on Friday and since then it has had 700 downloads so I’m fairly sure more than ‘a handful of specialised users who create content that needs subtitles’ are interested. 

Posted by: Jim Hunter, Practice Lead, Enterprise Applications (Northern) | 23 March 2011


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