Good Convo-sation: Video chat app for the deaf, by the deaf
While attending a holiday reception at the White House two months ago, Jarrod Musano was being introduced to President Barack Obama when the president realized Musano is deaf.
"President Obama took one look at my interpreter, made eye contact with me, shook my hand and said, 'I want you to know we're looking into the interpreter situation that happened in South Africa,' " recalled Musano, a New York entrepreneur.
"It was so quick of him that I was stunned and forgot what I had planned to say, so I replied, 'The deaf community is also working on it,' " he said. "The president said, 'That's important because we need to work with the community on this.' "
That "situation" was the public relations debacle that ensued earlier in December, when the purported sign language interpreter assigned to translate Obama's remarks at the funeral for former South African President Nelson Mandela was exposed as a fraud.
His "signs" had been little more than gibberish to the hearing impaired watching in person and on TV. The incident embarrassed Obama and outraged the deaf community, which has long struggled to overcome isolation.
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While the incident was a setback in that struggle, Musano and his company, Convo, have been working for several year to improve the ability of the deaf to communicate with the hearing—and in ways that can broaden their career options.
Convo's technology, known as a video relay service, or VRS, lets a deaf or hearing-impaired person call a hearing one via a smartphone or Internet-enabled computer and talk to the other person through an American Sign Language interpreter.
There are several other VRS providers for the deaf, including Sorensen, Purple, Communication Axess Ability Group and Global VRS. Their services, like those of privately held Convo, are government-subsidized, so calls are free to users.
Andrew Phillips, a lawyer in the Law and Advocacy Center of the National Association of the Deaf, said, "NAD believes that VRS has been a great equalizer for deaf and hard-of-hearing people as it has given them independence to easily contact their children's schools, work colleagues and places of business.
"VRS allows a more natural and real-time conversation through telecommunications for ASL-fluent individuals," he said. "Convo ... and the other VRS providers enable our community to have access to telecommunication services on nearly equal footing."
Convo's marketing strategy is to differentiate itself by focusing on the fact that it is owned by deaf people and that provides an app designed by deaf people.
Founded in 2009, the company also touts that it trains its interpreters to convey the mood and tone of a call's participants.
The goal is for the translator to effectively "disappear" from the conversation, Musano said. "We train the interpreter to 'be' the person."
During an interview with CNBC.com, Musano demonstrated the Convo app on his smartphone. A split screen popped up, with the interpreter on the top and the caller, Musano, on the bottom. The app dialed a relative of his—a private investigator named Bill Stanton—who was told verbally by the interpreter that she was going to translate a call from a deaf person.
"Billy, can you hear me now?" Musano signed with his hands to the interpreter, who then spoke those words to Stanton. When he replied that he could "hear" Musano, the interpreter then signed that response back to Musano, her face reflecting Stanton's laugh.
Their conversation went smoothly and much more quickly than it would have with text telephone, or TTY, an older phone-based technology. That system required the deaf person to laboriously enter words on a teletype machine, which were then relayed to the hearing person by a human facilitator, who would then have to type the responses.
"Before VRS ... it was very difficult for a deaf guy like me to communicate with the real world," said the 40-year-old Musano, who was born deaf but has learned to speak verbally.
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He recalled working for his father's real estate management firm and how challenging it was to deal with contractors and others on the phone.
"People have no patience for me to type something down," Musano said. "Most people, when they hear that they're getting a teletype call, they hang up. Especially in New York—they ain't got time for nothing."
But after VRS began being rolled out on a widespread basis in the early 2000s, "I installed it in my office," he said. "What it did for me: I was able to move my business faster, getting things done quicker."
Because of the newfound ease of communication, Musano was able to start and expand several businesses, including a maintenance company and a construction company, as well as running his dad's real estate operation. Without the technology, he said, he likely would not have had those opportunities.
He invested in Convo in 2010 and became CEO last March. It operates five call centers around the country, offering customers round-the-clock service.
The company's biggest challenge is ensuring the quality of interpreters because of the premium Convo places on having callers fully understand the tenor of the caller.
"It takes a lot of training," Musano said.
But it's worth it, he added.
Musano mentioned a customer who used Convo to call his father. After the call, the father texted the son to say that for the first time he sensed his son's "voice," Musano said.
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Brian Hertneky, a leader of the Deaf Gamers Network, an online community, echoed that reaction.
"When I talk with hearing people ... they tell me that they like the relay interpreters for Convo because they forget that they are speaking through an interpreter to talk with me," he said.
Glenn Lockhart, who is deaf and lives in Washington, D.C., said he used Convo several weeks ago when "a pipe burst and my kitchen flooded."
"I got a plumber and called a nearby store to see if they had water vacuum cleaners, and did both using Convo on my phone," he said. "All that occurred while I was looking for the shutoff valve, moving my stuff on tables and chairs, throwing towels and sheets to divert water, and panicked stuff like that. As floods go, I waded through this just fine, and the calls I made were seamless. I didn't give them any thought throughout."
If Musano has his way, many more deaf people in the U.S. and elsewhere will be using Convo for similar situations—as well as another one.
"I'm planning to travel around the world," he said, "to spread the word about our technology."
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter