A Quiet Breakthrough

updated 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Two years ago millionaire entrepreneur Jim Sorenson Jr. had a little problem. One of his companies, Sorenson Media, was trying to find applications for a new and promising videophone. But with the high-tech sector in the doldrums, there wasn't much interest. Then Sorenson hit upon an idea that might pass for one definition of genius: using his problem to solve someone else's. He thought of his brother-in-law Jon Hodson, 52, who was born deaf, and wondered if some-how his videophone could be useful for the hearing impaired, enabling them to communicate through the use of American Sign Language. "The deaf community is underserved in our society," says Sorenson, 54, who lives in Salt Lake County, Utah. "They needed this technology to improve their lives."

It would be an exaggeration to call Sorenson the Alexander Graham Bell of the deaf community—but not much of one. His video relay system relies on a videophone device half the size of a laptop. Plugged into a television set and a high-speed Internet connection, it serves, among other things, as a voice-mail network for the deaf. In the past year Sorenson has donated 5,000 videophones free of charge. Ultimately he hopes that showcasing the videophone this way will help drum up other business, but for the moment his generosity has inspired gratitude among deaf users. "Video relay makes us about as close to hearing people as we can be," says I. King Jordan, the first deaf president of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. "It's hard not to sound superlative and overly enthusiastic about Sorenson's work."

For years, the deaf have used the cumbersome TTY (for teletypewriter) in which the deaf caller must tap out a message on a keyboard. If a hearing person wants to leave a message for a deaf person, it is necessary to send it through the national system of relay operators who type it out. But with the Sorenson videophone, a deaf person can converse directly and instantaneously with another deaf person through signing. Just as important, deaf callers who want to contact a hearing party can route a call through one of seven centers around the U.S. set up by Sorenson, where signing interpreters speak the messages to the hearing person and sign back the responses. For the deaf the benefits are profound. Moussa Ahmadi, who is deaf and owns Best World Motors, a car dealership in Newark, Calif., recalls the frustrations of trying to do business over TTY. "People avoided my calls," says Ahmadi, who got a videophone 11 months ago. "Now I've had customers who forget that I am deaf until they visit the dealership."

When it comes to entrepreneurial role models, Sorenson needs to look no further than his father. James Sorenson Sr. was a pioneer in the field of medical devices, who is credited with inventing the disposable hospital mask. (Last year Forbes magazine pegged his net worth at $2.7 billion, making him number 66 on the list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.) "His success propelled me to want to be my own boss and develop my own business," says Jim Jr. After graduating from the University of Utah, where he met Liz (the couple have five grown children), Jim Jr. took on as his first task revitalizing a cosmetics company his father owned. His enthusiasm and drive quickly showed results. The night their third child was born, recalls Liz, 51, "I walked around in labor while he mixed up shampoos."

From there he branched out into other businesses, such as medical devices, real estate and environmental testing. For all his accomplishments, though, Sorenson sees his venture with the relay system as perhaps the highlight of his career. "I can't think of anything else I've done that has given me more satisfaction," he says. (The federal government reimburses Sorenson $7.29 for each minute of use, money that he puts toward financing more free videophones.) So far the only drawback of the system is that it is so popular that deaf callers must sometimes wait a few minutes to make their calls because of a shortage of interpreters. In April, Sorenson introduced a video e-mail feature, in which the user records a signed message that can be sent anywhere. But for many deaf users, like Ronda Jo Miller, 26, who plays for the Dallas Fury in the National Women's Basketball League, it is the small pleasures of the videophone that resonate the most. "I like being able to tell a [takeout] restaurant what I want on my pizza," says Miller, "and know exactly what I'm ordering."
Bill Hewitt. Carolyn Campbell in Salt Lake County

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