Hundreds of thousands of hearing-impaired people in the United States and many parts of Canada rely solely on American Sign Language (ASL) for communication. But popular as the language is, there are millions of people with normal hearing that are unable to decipher the hand and finger gestures. That may change soon thanks to the ingenious “SignAloud” glove that converts sign language into speech.
The gloves are the brainchild of University of Washington sophomores Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi. The inventors, who met during their freshman year, are firm believers that the ability to communicate is a fundamental human right and that those unable to hear or speak face a significant disadvantage in life. But though there have been many attempts to bridge the communications gap, the current solutions are simply too cumbersome to be implemented on a large scale.
The lightweight and comfortable SignAloud glove that can easily be worn as a daily accessory, is equipped with a series of sensors that measure the movement and position of the hands as a person is signing. A Bluetooth device transmits the information to a computer, which tries to match the gesture with a one in its database. As soon as the exact match is located, it “speaks” the relevant words or phrase through a speaker.
Though still in prototype phase, the glove seems to have impressed even the experts. On April 12, the inventors won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Established by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, the award that comes with a $10,000 USD cash prize, celebrates collegiate students whose inventions have the potential to impact critical sectors of the global economy. University students can submit entries in one of four categories: "Cure it!", "Drive it!", "Eat it!" or "Use it!.”
Pryor and Azodi won top honors in the "Use it" category, which recognizes technology-based inventions that have the potential to improve consumer products. In addition to using the glove to enable the hearing impaired to converse more efficiently, the inventors envision several other commercial applications. These include using them to teach ASL, as well as for communicating with patients recovering from debilitating ailments like strokes.
The sophomores are not the only ones trying to solve this issue. Hadeel Ayoub, a student at the Goldsmiths, University of London, has been working on a similar idea. Her SignLanguageGlove translates sign language into text that can be transmitted to a smartphone app or tablet device. The young inventor who is on her third prototype also wants to incorporate multilingual features into the glove so that it can be used in countries where English is not the primary language. Thanks to these creative youngsters, the future of communication for all people, regardless of their hearing abilities, certainly looks a lot brighter!