KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Let’s talk Headsets! Switching to VRI During COVID-19

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I‘m a freelance on-site Spanish medical interpreter, and due to the COVID-19 (a.k.a. Coronavirus) outbreak, more and more of my assignments are being cancelled or I am being offered the opportunity to interpret remotely for those appointments.  I know I’m not alone.  I’m fairly active in professional Facebook groups for interpreters, and I’m seeing everyone scrambling right now trying to figure out how to tackle the world of VRI, or video remote interpreting.  Due to the drastic decrease in on-site assignments that will likely only continue for the forseeable future, I’ve also decided to delve into VRI, especially since I have unexpectedly become the sole breadwinner for my family of 3 due to Coronavirus.

VRI Hardware: Computer and Webcam

I’m limited in my ability to help my colleagues right now, so the least I can do is share some tips and tricks for those of you getting into VRI.  Given that I’ve always been a bit of a technophile, I figured the best contribution I could make at this time would be in terms of sharing my thoughts on VRI hardware.  Broadly speaking you’re going to need a decent computer, a webcam (if your laptop’s webcam is subpar), and a headset.

Your computer specifications are going to be largely agency-specific if you’re freelancing.  I’ve encountered a lot of agencies I’ve applied with don’t even publicly share their minimum system requirements.  Fortunately, computers are getting better and better these days, and even though I purchased my laptop at the end of 2016 for around $500, it’s still suitable for VRI.

My laptop’s specifications from Amazon

In terms of a webcam, I honestly consider this to be the least important/specific of the hardware you’ll need.  While my laptop boasts an “HD Camera” I honestly find the quality to be fairly poor. If your laptop has a webcam, it’s definitely going to be your call as to whether or not you’d like to use the built-in functionality or purchase a separate camera.  I was fortunate enough to have an incredibly generous friend give me their webcam they no longer use!  I think the minimum acceptable resolution for a webcam would be 720p (the minimum for modern-day HD), but mine goes up to 1080p.  For more on webcam specifications, please visit this link!

The VRI Hardware VIP: Your Headset

For the remainder of this article, I’ll be focusing on headsets, as this is what I consider to be the most important piece of equipment that requires the most thought and research.  After all, we’re linguists and the nature of our job is the spoken word, so naturally the most important component of VRI is going to be the ability for both parties to clearly hear what is being said!

Popular Brands Among Interpreters

When I first realized I needed a headset, I turned to those trusty interpreter forums on Facebook and began searching for recommendations from other interpreters who are already doing VRI. I wasn’t surprised to find that some of the most popular options were gaming headsets, as I have an avid family of gamers (myself included). The three most popular brands (listed in alphabetical order, not by popularity) were:

Corsair Components, Inc.
Corsair is a California-based brand that produces keyboards, gaming mice, wireless headsets, PC components, and gaming PCs for gamers.
Due to the fact that Corsair’s headsets are designed for gaming, you’re not going to have a lot of low-profile, sleek options. These headsets are going to be quality but bulkier than headsets designed for business applications. Check with your agency regarding headset specifications.

Corsair Headsets

$30-$117+

Click here to view product line

Plantronics, Inc.
Plantronics merged with Polycom, and is now known as Poly. They manufacture products for audio and video conferencing including headsets and desk phones.
Plantronics has two categories of headsets: business (Plantronics Business) and gaming (RIG Series). Naturally, Plantronics Business headsets are going to be sleeker, have a wider range of features, and be significantly more expensive. RIG Series headsets are bulkier with less features and significantly less expensive than their business counterparts.


These are the Plantronics C225 which were recommended by two agencies I applied to. Older, but well-reviewed.

These are the Plantronics Blackwire C520 which appear to be a newer version of the recommended C225.

UPDATE [March 26, 2020]: I’ve updated this article with links to two Plantronics headsets (see above) based on agency recommendations. I thought it was worth noting what types of headsets agencies are expecting. That being said, this does not necessarily reflect the preferences of all agencies, just two of the many I have applied to recently.

Plantronics RIG Series

$12-$50+

Click here to view product line

Plantronics Business

$104-$194+

Click here to view product line

Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co.
As you’ve probably guessed, Sennheiser is a German company. They produce headphones, headsets, and microphones for a variety of applications, but mostly business communications.
Sennheiser has a very complicated history of mergers and dissolutions, and it looks like their headsets are being developed and marketed by a company called EPOS. They have two broad product categories with different product lines: Enterprise and Gaming.  Enterprise headsets are split into two product lines: IMPACT and ADAPT. IMPACT boasts “crystal clear speech clarity” for call center employees and prices range from $50-$285+. ADAPT appears to be designed for traveling businesspeople and prices range from $37-$299+.

Enterprise headsets

$37-$299+

Click here to view product line

Gaming headsets

$99-$319+

Click here to view product line

So, these are the three clear front-runners in terms of favorite brands of VRI interpreters posting on some of the biggest interpreting Facebook groups. That isn’t to say other brands aren’t good, but this list should give you a good starting point for product recommendations. Sennheiser seems to be the highest quality out of this list, but also the highest in price. I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for, so I’d advise against going for the cheapest versions of these headsets.

Important Features

Ultimately, which headset you choose is going to largely depend upon the features you’re looking for. This may be agency-specific, as well. Generally the most important thing is that you’re able to hear and BE heard clearly. If your environment has a lot of background noise (i.e. if you live and work in a poorly-insulated apartment building), noise-cancellation might be a very important feature to you. I’m not going to delve much further into those features, but I am going to talk about two features that were very important to me in selecting a headset.

Wired Connection, Not Wireless

If you’re going to be doing remote medical interpretation, or some other form of interpretation that legally requires privacy, I recommend avoiding wireless headsets. Wireless headsets are typically going to be using DECT or Bluetooth technology, but in the United States, Bluetooth is far more common. Bluetooth isn’t perfect, and it is known to have some security vulnerabilities that can result in third parties maliciously eavesdropping on your interpretations.  This may be why some agencies require wired headsets!

Furthermore, while a DECT-enabled device can only connect to one device at a time, a Bluetooth device can connect to up to 8 other devices simultaneously! If you have your wireless Bluetooth headset also paired to your phone, tablet, or another computer, it may auto-connect in the vicinity of those devices while you’re interpreting. This could result in your partner starting up their Spotify app on their phone in the other room, only to have your favorite rock band start playing on your headset while you’re in the middle of interpreting! If you’re not technologically inclined, I’d definitely advise steering clear of wireless Bluetooth headsets.

VRI Interpreter wondering why Lizzo’s “Juice” started playing over his headset while in the middle of a session. [Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash]
Lastly, wireless headsets have batteries. Chances are, you’re not going to be manually replacing that battery, but instead charging it. While this shouldn’t pose an issue in the short-term, if my past experience of being a retailer of vaporizers has taught me anything, it’s that batteries die and recharging can grow to be incredibly inconvenient. Over time your battery will stay charged for less and less time and take longer to charge. Remember when you first got your new cell phone and it stayed charged for seemingly forever? After a few years of having that phone, its battery life is likely nowhere near what it used to be.

Sidetone

This is the feature I didn’t even know I needed that my husband insisted upon. Sidetone allows you to hear your own voice when speaking into the microphone of your headset. Even if your headset has this feature and you discover you don’t like it, many headsets that are advanced enough to have this feature offer you the ability to turn it off. Sidetone can provide you useful feedback such as:

  • Letting you know your microphone is picking up your voice.
  • Giving you an idea of the volume of your voice.
  • Allowing you to hear how your voice’s cadence and pitch sound to others.

With sidetone enabled, if I suddenly don’t hear my voice while I’m talking into my microphone, I’ll be able to pinpoint the issue much faster.  Also, it turns out I tend to raise my voice when my ears are covered, so sidetone prevents me from yelling into the mic.  Lastly, I can hear if I sound nervous or gruff while interpreting, which may negatively impact the patient and/or provider.

My Headset of Choice

Wearing my Corsair VOID Elite Headset

Ultimately, due to availability and pricing, I decided to go with the Corsair VOID RGB Elite (Wired) Headset which retails for $60-$80. It turns out my husband was already looking into this headset for gaming, so he had all the specifications ready to share with me! It connects to my computer with a USB cord, has sidetone capabilities, a mute button on the left side, a volume dial also on the right side, and the ability to raise/lower/bend the microphone. It also has a really neat feature where the Corsair logo lights up based on your preferences in the configuration application.

I initially thought I’d stay away from a gaming headset because of how bulky they generally tend to be (I feel like it’s a gamer status symbol!) but even with my small face I don’t feel like the size is problematic. I think I still look professional and they’re actually quite comfy. I’ve adjusted them to the size of my petite head, and I’m really glad they have open cups/padding that don’t push on my earlobes. I’ve had issues with headphones in the past being uncomfortable with earrings, which is only compounded by the fact that I have stretched earlobes.

Scarcity in the Time of COVID-19

I had initially ordered my headset on Amazon on March 17 because my husband has Prime and free two-day shipping. We had gone out the day before and checked a few stores for both headsets and webcams, but they were all sold out. We live near a number of colleges, and given the recent switch to distance learning as a result of COVID-19, it seems a lot of students are scrambling for the equipment necessary for their classes. Of course, once we placed our order, we saw the following news story:

“Coronavirus: Amazon suspends all shipments to its warehouses except medical supplies and ‘high-demand’ products.”

I made a Facebook post asking my friends if they had a headset or camera they’d be willing to sell me considering my Amazon order seemed to be in peril, local stores didn’t seem to have anything, and I wasn’t sure how much longer smaller retailers would be open to ship to me. One of my friends was able to get me a camera, but by the next day I still had no headset and no updates on the Amazon situation. My husband and I went to work looking for any headsets available for pickup at any local stores, and found ONE Corsair VOID RGB Elite for pickup at a Best Buy 20 miles away. I prepaid and within the hour I had the headset in hand!

Non-essential items WILL continue to be shipped from Amazon as long as they are in stock.

Amazon has since clarified the news about “non-essential” shipments and Snopes has pointed out that “Amazon is temporarily prohibiting third-party sellers from shipping and storing non-essential items at its warehouses until April 5, 2020.” This means that products marked as “Fulfillment by Amazon” will likely be affected. Non-essential items WILL continue to be shipped from Amazon as long as they are in stock.

That being said, my Amazon order status did not update to reflect that it had even been processed or shipped, so we decided to cancel the order yesterday (March 20, 2020). I was hoping to still get the headset to help out another local interpreter, but it was looking like that interpreter was going to be able to get their headset much faster than it was going to get here from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve found this article informative and helpful. The interpreting industry as we know it is transforming right before our eyes and we’re all going to be adjusting. As it is right now, I am trying to onboard with a number of different agencies looking for VRI contractors, but my income has drastically decreased in a short period of time due to COVID-19. In addition, I have suddenly become the sole breadwinner for my family due to the state government shutting down many non-essential businesses for the forseeable future. Nonetheless, I put a lot of time and research into my articles. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask a small favor: could you scroll down to the gray box labeled “Like my Content?” and contribute in some way? I really appreciate your support!

Further Reading and Sources

Links are listed in order of appearance in the above article. Product links for reference are not included, so please refer to the article.

[Cover Photo by Petr Macháček on Unsplash]

About the author

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

Kelly is a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI-Spanish) through the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI). She works as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical interpreter and also specializes in mental health interpretation.

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KGH Interpretation Spanish-English Medical & Mental Health Interpretation

Kelly (Grzech) Henriquez

I am a Certified Medical/Healthcare Interpreter (CMI-Spanish, CHI-Spanish) and a medical interpreter trainer. I work as an independent contractor in the greater Richmond, Virginia area as a Spanish-English medical interpreter. Click here to read more about me.

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