The Motion-Sensing Gloves That Will Translate Sign Language Into Spoken Words

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The winners of Microsoft's Imagine Cup aim to create a device "to solve the language barrier between sign-language users and the rest of the world."

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Enable Talk's protoype (Enable Talk)

Taking home a $25,000 prize, a team of Ukrainian students won Microsoft's annual Imagine Cup yesterday, with a plan for building and selling gloves that will enable sign-language users to talk through their cell phones. As the team explains, sign language's capacity for communication is limited outside of the deaf community, making many daily interactions -- in stores, on public transit, in restaurants -- difficult for many deaf people. With their Enable Talk gloves, the team hopes to bridge that divide, translating -- through motion detection, recognized as language by software on a cell phone, and then brought into sound waves by the phone's speakers.

Each glove is a technological marvel, equipped with a "microcontroller, 15 flex sensors, [an] accelerometer, [a] gyroscope, and a compass in order to define the position of the glove in space, a Bluetooth module for data transmission from the gloves to a mobile device and a USB-port for the synchronization with the PC and for charging the Li-ion battery that provides power. The glove is also fitted with a solar panel to provide for longer intervals between charging and out of concern for environment." Software on a Windows phone captures the incoming motions, and "transforms the resulting data into a sound wave."

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It's easy to see the limitations of this technology -- most obviously that once the deaf person's words become speech, then what? Even for skilled lipreaders, many settings (e.g. darker rooms) make lipreading difficult and many hearing people do not articulate their words in ways that make lipreading easier. Additionally, many deaf people may not want to carry around the glove or may find that the computer processing is too slow or unnatural. Lastly, these gloves cannot capture the facial expressions that are crucial to ASL grammar. Even so, it's great to see so much technology, brainpower, and now some Microsoft cash applied to raising up more voices -- including those translated from motions and spoken by computers.



H/t @edyong209.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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