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Sign language translation gloves

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2016

A pair of undergraduate students, Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi of the University of Washington, have invented a pair of gloves that translates the sign language movements of the wearer into spoken English in realtime.

Thomas and Navid developed SignAloud, a pair of gloves that recognizes hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language, using resources at the University of Washington CoMotion MakerSpace, a place that offers communal tools, equipment, and opportunities for students. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement. As users put on the gloves, the device calibrates to account for differences in sensor placement. Data from the sensors is sent from the gloves wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the data for gestures through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data matches a gesture, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker.

Update: A woman named Katie, who is a linguistics professor and ASL interpreter, wrote a not-so-positive review of the gloves on her blog. Actually, she calls them impractical and “nothing more than a fun party trick”.

ASL uses facial expressions and other “non-manual” markers to show grammar. The difference between a question, a statement and a command is purely on your face. How can the gloves interpret your face?

And she also points out the biggest thing I noticed when I first watched the video:

These guys are not signers. The signs they demoed are (laughably) not even correctly produced. Programming the device with incorrect input will not, as they say in their video, “translate American Sign Language into speech”. Without the collaboration of a deaf person (the targeted audience of these things), how do these guys even know that what they’re doing is right?

Sounds like a well-meaning experiment that may have merit in the future (like the Apple Watch?), but, as Katie says, presently impractical. (via @jonathonbellew)

Update: Alex Lu writes that deaf people don’t need new communications tools.

Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words and presentation palatable to hearing people. You already have all the tools you need to communicate with us, if you would only learn how to use them. It is time that hearing people respect Deaf people for who they are, instead of forcing us to be empty caricatures of hearing standards.