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Smart Gloves Turn Sign Language Gestures Into Vocalized Speech

EnableTalk’s smart glove looks modest as a prototype, but aims to give a new voice to those with hearing disabilities.

Giving a voice to the voiceless has been a cause that many have championed throughout history, but it’s safe to say that none of those efforts involved packing a bunch of sensors into a glove. A team of Ukrainian of students has done just that in order to translate sign language into vocalized speech via a smartphone.

With the motto “We’re giving a voice to movements,” Team QuadSquad came in first place for their glove prototype in the Software Design Competition of the 2012 Microsoft Imagine Cup, winning $25,000 and garnering interest across the world, including developers anxious to bring their expertise to the project. Now the Ukranians have launched Enable Talk, a website that openly shares their ambitious vision, design documentation, and a business plan for how to bring the device to market. Furthermore, the team is looking into the possibility of enabling the same technology to allow cell phone conversations using the system.

That could mean a new way for about 70 million people with hearing and speech impairment to verbally communicate and connect to people around them.

The video that the Ukranian team used in the Microsoft competion gives a better feel for how the glove works:

The inspiration for the gloves came from observing fellow college students who were deaf have difficulty communicating with other students, which results in them being excluded from activities. Initially, the team looked at commercially available gloves that could be modified to interpret a range of signs, but in the end, they opted to develop their own.

Schematics of the gloves reveal the extensive use of flex sensors to detect finger motions used in sign language.

In their glove, a total of 15 flex sensors in the fingers measure the degree of bending while a compass, accelerometer, and gyroscope determine the motion of the glove through space. The sensor data are processed by a microcontroller on the glove then sent via Bluetooth to a mobile device, which translates the positions of the hand and fingers into text when the pattern is recognized. Using Microsoft APIs for Speech and Bing, the text is spoken by the phone running Windows Phone 7. The glove can also plug into a PC for data syncing and charging of its battery.

Working with other developers, the glove will ultimately be supported on Android and Apple iOS.

Although the money the team won for coming in first place helps, they estimate that initial startup costs at $400,000, which includes development, testing, and marketing. The base cost of each glove is currently $150 but they forecast that this will drop 50 percent once they refine the development and being mass production. The projected initial retail price of one glove is $250 and $400 for a pair but with minimal competition, EnableTalk is optimistic about their ability to find customers.

At the competition in July, the system could only translate a small number of phrases, such as “Nice to meet you,” so building up the library of recognized signs is of great importance. To do this, the team plans to work with native signers and deaf college students, according to Forbes. Additionally, the recognition algorithms must be revised to improve accuracy from its current 90 percent to 99 percent. The team also wants to improve the processing speed, which is vital for regular conversation flow.

Check out this video to see what the current speed of processing is at:

For deaf people or those with significant hearing loss, these gloves offer hope against the locked-in feeling that the community can experience due to the low numbers of signers in the general population. Perhaps one day, a glove like this could be part of a universal translator, which is something that will continue to be pursued as mobile computing, speech recognition, and translation advance.

While EnableTalk is initially targeting the deaf community, the smart glove technology that they are developing has a much broader market, one that is embracing the very real prospect of wearable computing. The same hardware in Enable Talk could easily be adapted to make keyboard commands faster or even be used as an alternative to a mouse, just as the Leap Motion is aiming to do through a completely different approach. In fact, touch computing has eliminated the mouse on mobile devices and speech recognition like Siri and Evi could eliminate the need for a keyboard. And of course, one of the most recognizable uses of a smart glove is to interact with a graphic interface as shown in the movie Minority Report.

In other words, smart gloves are poised to be a big part of the future of computing, so EnableTalk’s work has the potential to have a much broader impact in the marketplace even if they started the project with a much more philanthropic motive.

For some the notion of using your hands to speak may seem odd, but considering how often we communicate through emails, chats, tweets, blogs, and articles without a single vocalization, those of us who can verbally communicate are in a better position than ever to celebrate EnableTalk’s efforts alongside those look forward to the technology hitting the shelves.

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