American Sign Language (ASL) is spoken by hundreds of thousands of people in Deaf communities around the world. With the help of two inventive undergrads from the University of Washington, this language is getting a voice. The two students, Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor, won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in the ‘Use It’ category that focuses on inventions that improve consumer devices. The invention, ‘SignAloud,’ is a pair of gloves that is programmed to register common gestures of ASL and speak the corresponding message aloud through a speaker.
If you’re anything like me,
you thought this technology was available ages ago.
Not only was that technology not yet fully developed, that wasn’t even a real gorilla. For comparison, watch this short video of the two inventors of ‘SignAloud’ as they sample the product.
The gloves are designed with a number of sensors that are linked via Bluetooth to a computer. That computer has a program that receives the data from the gloves, and if the movements match previously recognized movements, speaks the corresponding command for each gesture.
To develop their invention into a marketable product, the two plan to first market to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. But they already see the potential for their product to be used in unforeseen environments. Someday, Azodi and Pryor believe that the ‘SignAloud’ gloves could be used to help rehabilitate stroke patients, train people who lose hearing over time, or even enhance dexterity and control in virtual reality systems.
This product is still a long way from functional implementation. The hurdles of grammar, conversational nuance, emphasis, and the willingness of people to use the product are among the largest. Also, the gloves will only work in one direction—they can’t make the person who hears the command know how to sign back. But just as ASL helped create a unified Deaf culture in America, technology like these gloves may help to bridge the communication gap between those that speak ASL and the rest of us.