Holmes Wilson on Universal Subtitles: Collaborative, Volunteer Subtitling for any Video on the Web Using Free Software

On: March 13, 2011
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(A blogpost on Holmes Wilson’s presentation, originally published @ Video Vortex #6 website. The original text can be found here)

The importance of subtitles is an undeniable fact for Holmes Wilson, co-founder of the Participatory Culture Foundation. Through the foundation’s  latest open source, software-based project Universal Subtitles, the creative staff of the foundation argues that subtitles urgently need to support the vast universe of online videos.

What is Universal Subtitles? Universal Subtitles is a software platform that allows people to collaborate and create captions for online videos.

Why subtitles are important? Subtitles are essentially the bridge that can assist online videos move freely across language barriers while the use of captions can make them “searchable” for web search engines. In addition, the feature of subtitles can make an online video accessible to deaf and hard of hearing viewers as well as cover the needs of those who just need these annotations to focus on their screens. In his presentation at Video Vortex #6 Holmes Wilson stated that subtitles can extend the political impact of a video as well as enable and empower the interactive viewer-video exchange.

Holmes Wilson, photo by Anne Helmond
Holmes Wilson @ Video Vortex, photo by Anne Helmond

Why subtitles are hard to do? Creating subtitles to annotate online videos can be a tricky procedure for a number of reasons according to Wilson. Machine transcription and translation provide low quality results still; the whole procedure is time-consuming and requires participants with language skills in order to be completed. Also, as we are dealing with online videos, the potential captions’ creator must take into account that videos move across websites/platforms while there is no ready-to-use standard application for web video subtitles. In other words, even if one makes the subtitles, there is no provided way to apply them directly on the video. It was mainly the desire to solve these problems that led to the development of the Universal subtitles project.

Why Universal Subtitles? Universal Subtitles manages to satisfy the needs of the public: it is a free, accessible, open source software (which means that the code behind it is provided online for those interested), it can be used on any site or platform (beyond YouTube!) as it works across multiple instances of a video. Universal Subtitles inspires its users to work on a participatory, collaborative (in Holmes Wilson’s words: Wikipedia like) model. One of the most important features of the software is the fact that it allows the video to spread across different platforms while the subtitles retain their piercing effect, as they will persist and also improve through the online community that supports the project.

Universal Subtitles has already won some hearts in the online world as many organizations are already using the software (such as: Mozilla, Wikipedia.org, The New York Times, the music band OK Go etc).

How does Universal Subtitles work? You can check that for yourself through their demo or watch this video from the Video Vortex #6 presentation proving that creating subtitles is easy and fun to do!

Holmes Wilson is a free software creator and activist for decentralized media distribution. In 2003 he co-founded Downhill Battle, a music activism campaign to remove the major record labels and create a bottom-up music culture. In 2005, Wilson and the Downhill Battle team founded Participatory Culture Foundation to build software for free, open, decentralized video distribution. Their flagship product Miro is a free software, bittorrent-enabled media player with over 9 million downloads. Their new project, Universal Subtitles, aims to make every video on the net subtitle-able by volunteers and enable subtitle lookup/sharing across sites and media players. Holmes is also a co-founder of the open government project Participatory Politics.

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