Two students at the University of Washington are unveiling a device they hope will make communication more accessible for members of the Deaf community. According to the Gallaudet Research Institute there are almost forty million Deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States. For many of these individuals American Sign Language, or ASL, is their first language. And unfortunately, areas of society can be lacking in accessibility for Deaf or hard of hearing people who rely on sign language for their communication. When doing common activities such as going to school, the grocery store, or public places such as parks, members of the Deaf community cannot always depend on the presence of someone who is capable of communicating with them.
Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi, both sophomores at UW, created SignAloud gloves which translate the wearer’s signs into text or verbal speech. The University of Washington describes the science behind SignAloud by saying that the “gloves that can recognize hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement and send data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the gesture data through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data match a gesture, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker.”
Both Pryor and Azodi are bilingual and believe in the power of language as a means of cross-cultural communication. The two shared the motivation behind the project with Tech.Mic. “Everyone should be able to communicate with everyone else. It’s about breaking down these barriers. Really good ideas can come when people can collaborate. That’s the impact we are going for,” stated Pryor, while Azodi added, “When we were talking about things being accessible and connecting people and making that impact we found that language and communication was the piece that holds it all together.”
The original SignAloud cost the two about $100 to create. For their work, however, Pryor and Azodi won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize to develop their invention. With their prize money, they plan on finessing the gloves to be more consumer-friendly. They are working with more members of the Deaf community to gain input from the people who might actually use the gloves and create a usable, practical voice. One criticism of the gloves has been that, since ASL has a different grammatical structure than the English language and the gloves work by translating word by word, the gloves will only be able to convey the literal translation of the signs, rather than the intended meaning. (You can see what I’m talking about in the video below.) The wearer could sign using English grammar to correct this, but that would be similar to a Spanish-speaking person trying to speak Spanish using English grammar. Perhaps Pryor and Azodi will be able to modify their programming to correct for grammatical differences between ASL and English in the future.
At the moment, the SignAloud glove’s intended purpose is to make communication more accessible for the Deaf community. However, in the future the gloves could be extended to other fields where verbal communication is difficult or impossible, such as with stroke patients in the medical field.
Below is a video demo of SignAloud!
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