March 1, 2006 A new high-tech glove enables the translation of sign language into written text, facilitating communication for the hearing or speech impaired. The glove senses movements of the hand and fingers, and a computer turns those signals into letters and words. Future versions will also translate sign language to speech.
WHEATON, Md.--There are more than 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, yet there are still communication barriers between the deaf and the hearing world. Now, a new technology is breaking sound barriers and lending a helping hand to the hearing impaired.
In a hearing world, many of us take everyday sounds for granted, but for the deaf, living in a silent world is hard. Corinne Vinopol, an educator and president of Institute for Disabilities Research and Training in Wheaton, says, "The biggest challenge that deaf people face on a day-to-day basis is communication."
Communication is a challenge that electrical engineers are now helping the hearing impaired overcome, with an electronic glove that turns American Sign Language gestures into text.
"What it does is detects the position of the fingers and the position of the hand so it translates positions of fingers into letters," says Josý Hernandez-Rebollar, an electrical engineer at George Washington University in Washington.
The glove, called Acceleglove, has sensors that send signals from movements of the hand and fingers to a computer. The computer finds the correct word or letter associated with the hand movement and displays the text on the screen. Vinopol says: "It's important to have technology because it's an equalizer. It allows deaf people to function as their maximum within society."
Researchers hope the high-tech glove will bridge the communication gap between the deaf and hearing -- a sure sign of the times.
The glove will be available to the general public within a year and expect the cost to be less than $100. Researchers are also developing the glove to translate sign language to speech.
BACKGROUND: A Washington University researcher has developed a glove that can convert American Sign Language into electronic text and speech using gesture-recognition technology. Letter by letter or by whole gesture, users can sign more than 200 words stored in the Acceleglove's dictionary. This could help the deaf communicate more easily with the hearing world, for example. The glove can also be modified for use as a virtual reality game tool, or for military applications. Its first practical application is as an interactive computer game tool to help deaf children learn English language spelling, or for hearing children to learn sign language.
HOW IT WORKS: Sensors (called accelerometers) on each finger of the glove, and other sensors fixed to the elbow and shoulder, generate electrical signals from the movement and position of the hand and fingers in relation to the body. These signals are analyzed by a microcontroller to find the correct word associated with that particular hand movement. The various signs are recognized by the differences in the beginning hand shapes, intervening movements, and ending hand shapes. Once the glove recognizes the beginning hand position, it can safely eliminate all the phrases in the database whose beginnings don't match. As the intervening movement progresses, more phrases are eliminated. When the end phrase is formed, only a single match remains. To keep the translator from incorrectly interpreting the move from a relaxed state with the hands down at the side to the signing position, and vice versa, the system begins processing the data from the movement of the glove only after the signer makes the ASL gesture meaning "start sentence." The "end sentence" gesture deactivates the system. The glove is placed on the hand and strapped to the arm. The entire process takes milliseconds from the time the sign is made to recognition of the sign and the computer output.
ABOUT ASL: Every country has its sign language, each with a distinctive developmental history. American Sign Language has roots in Europe. An early precursor to ASL was developed in the 18th century in France by Charles-Michel de l'Épée. In the U.S., a small island off the Massachusetts coast called Martha's Vineyard was a kind of "deaf utopia": so many residents were born deaf -- thanks to generations of inter-marriage -- that they developed their own sign language, which later merged with signing languages on the mainland to form modern ASL. Today, it is estimated that between 500,000 to 2,000,000 people in the U.S. use ASL.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.