A pair of sophomores at the University of Washington in Seattle have invented high-tech gloves that can interpret the hand gestures of American Sign Language (ASL) users and convert them into speech that hearing people who don’t know ASL can understand.
Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor – business administration and aeronautics and astronautics engineering majors, respectively – created gloves, called SignAloud, that are equipped with sensors that track hand gestures. The gloves send them wirelessly to a computer that matches the ASL movements with words from a database and then speaks them out loud or writes them.
ASL is the primary language used by many North Americans who are deaf, and is one of several communication methods used by people who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. About half a million people are thought to use the language to communicate.
“Our purpose for developing these gloves was to provide an easy-to-use bridge between native speakers of American Sign Language and the rest of the world,” Mr. Azodi, who with his teammate Mr. Pryor recently won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for their invention, said in a statement. The idea for the gloves, according to the prize website, came from Azodi's personal experience, which required him to used non-verbal communication until he was 7 years old.
Their invention is not the first to translate ASL into English. Researchers at Texas A&M University developed a wearable device that also translates sign language into English by sensing the user’s movements, as Smithsonian magazine reported in October.
The magazine described several others that have been created in recent years:
An app called Transcense, released last year, translates speech from multiple people into written words, and presents them on the screen in color-coded bubbles. It’s meant to help deaf people at meetings or in social situations, where multiple speakers can be a challenge for even the most proficient lip-readers. Another company, MotionSavvy, has been working on a tablet that interprets ASL motions and reads the words out loud in English. In China, researchers have used Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing equipment to translate Chinese Sign Language into spoken and written words.
SignAloud, say its young creators, is well suited for day-to-day use.
“Our gloves are lightweight, compact and worn on the hands, but ergonomic enough to use as an everyday accessory, similar to hearing aids or contact lenses,” said Pryor.
The partners are first targeting their new technology for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community and people interested in learning sign language. But, say the two in a statement, the gloves could also be used in other fields one day, including to monitor patients during rehabilitation, and for enhanced dexterity in virtual reality.