For years, inventors have been trying to convert some sign language words and letters into text and speech. Now a pair of University of Washington undergraduates have created gloves called SignAloud. Sensors attached to the gloves measure hand position and movement, and data is sent to a computer via Bluetooth and is then converted into spoken word and text.
Theirs is one of seven inventions recently awarded a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, with awards ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.
Inventors Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor, both college sophomores, say the gloves will help create a communication bridge between deaf and hearing communities. The gloves, they say, will help deaf people better communicate with the rest of the world without changing the way they already interact with each other.
However, the invention has been met with criticism that the bridge they want to create goes only one way — and it's not necessarily one the deaf community has been clamoring for.
"A lot of the feedback that we've been receiving goes down to this idea that we are not understanding the culture — there's a whole deaf culture around this — and by no means are we trying to interfere or impose something in that culture or community," Azodi tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
Azodi says he and Pryor are moving beyond their prototype and are working closer with those who use American Sign Language to develop new versions. They're also working on better understanding ASL, which is more than just hand movements; it also uses facial expressions and body language to convey meaning. For example, in ASL, shaking your head or frowning while signing something indicates a negative of that word.
"That speaks to the complexities and nuances of American Sign Language," Azodi says. "By no means have we completely tackled that but we are moving in that direction."
Other 2016 Lemelson-MIT undergraduate winners include teams that created an all-automated restaurant called Spyce as well as that created Highlight, a powdered additive for disinfectants that helps the process of infectious disease decontamination. You can read about all seven 2016 winners here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's hear now from a couple of students at the University of Washington who've come up with an invention they call SignAloud. It's a pair of gloves that connect to a computer and translate American Sign Language into spoken words. That would help deaf and hearing people communicate with each other. Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi say their device costs about $100 to make. But it earned them the $10,000 Lemelson-MIT award for innovation. They will use the money to perfect their idea, which, they allow, is a little rough around the edges.
THOMAS PRYOR: It'll take me a bit to get this set up.
NAVID AZODI: Yeah. It'll get a little bit loud.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, of course.
PRYOR: So right now I'm turning on the computer.
AZODI: And we're taking our wonderful device out of our cardboard box that we have so meticulously placed it in.
MONTAGNE: While you're doing that, what do the gloves look like?
AZODI: Homemade, do-it-your-own gloves, I guess you can call it.
PRYOR: DIY gloves.
AZODI: Yeah. That would be a pretty accurate way to describe it. We'll say that our stitching is not that great.
PRYOR: I learned how to sew making the gloves.
AZODI: I feel like our moms would be proud of us, but we definitely didn't go for design in this version.
MONTAGNE: Where are you at now? Have you got the computer going?
PRYOR: Oh, yeah. We're just turning on the gloves right now. And you have to calibrate it to the user's hands.
COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Gloves connected.
MONTAGNE: All right, gloves connected.
COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Hello. We hope SignAloud builds bridges to communication.
MONTAGNE: That is really interesting. How does that happen, though, using hand signals?
PRYOR: There are sensors on the hands and wrists that measure hand position and hand movement. So - and there's a little circuit board on the wrist as well that aggregates all of this data. And then it sends this to the computer so the computer will output the corresponding word or phrase in text and speech.
MONTAGNE: OK. It sounds pretty simple. But Deaf people will say this - that sign language is not just about hand movements. It's also about facial expressions, which play a key role in communicating effectively in sign language. So how did you get around that?
PRYOR: Yeah. That goes to the - speaks to the complexities and nuances of American Sign Language. And by no means have we completely, you know, tackled that. But we are, you know, moving in that direction.
MONTAGNE: What kind of feedback have you gotten from those who might be using this?
AZODI: In the last few weeks, we have had an outpouring of positive and, I guess, critical responses from those in the Deaf community and those who utilize ASL. A lot of the feedback that we've been receiving kind of goes down to this idea that we are not understanding the culture. There's a whole Deaf culture, you know, around this. And by no means did we - and are we - trying to interfere or impose something in that culture or community. There are certain barriers that, you know, we want to break down and certain bridges that we want to build. And so I think that's where a device like this can really be helpful.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
PRYOR: Yeah, no problem. It was our pleasure.
AZODI: Of course. Thank you so much.
MONTAGNE: That was Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor who have developed SignAloud gloves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.