I once observed the communication of a mute person on his tablet via Skype to his relative. While waiting in the airport that day, I marveled at the beauty of technology, at what had been made possible: that someone born mute or deaf could communicate, via sign language, to his loved ones, make up a ‘video’ call to tell them ‘I am catching up my plane’ or ‘I made it safely to the airport, we should be taking off shortly’. Now this invention out of Africa tries to make into audible speech Sign language so that all could be able to communicate. Simply love it! The article is from the Guardian.
Roy Allela’s six-year-old niece was born deaf. She found it difficult to communicate with her family, none of whom knew sign language. So Allela – a 25-year-old Kenyan technology evangelist who works for Intel and tutors data science at Oxford University – invented smart gloves that convert sign language movements into audio speech.
The gloves – named Sign-IO – have flex sensors stitched on to each finger. The sensors quantify the bend of the fingers and process the letter being signed. The gloves are paired via Bluetooth to a mobile phone application that Allela also developed, which then vocalises the letters.
“My niece wears the gloves, pairs them to her phone or mine, then starts signing and I’m able to understand what she’s saying,” says Allela. “Like all sign language users, she’s very good at lip reading, so she doesn’t need me to sign back.”
Allela piloted the gloves at a special needs school in rural Migori county, south-west Kenya, where feedback helped inform one of the most important aspects of the gloves: the speed at which the language is converted into audio.
“People speak at different speeds and it’s the same with people who sign: some are really fast, others are slow, so we integrated that into the mobile application so that it’s comfortable for anyone to use it.”
Users can also set the language, gender and pitch of the vocalisation through the app, with accuracy results averaging 93%, says Allela. Perhaps most importantly, the gloves can be packaged in any style the user wants, whether that’s a princess glove or a Spider-Man one, he says. “It fights the stigma associated with being deaf and having a speech impediment. If the gloves look cool, every kid will want to know why you have them on.”
The gloves recently won the hardware trailblazer award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Allela is using the prize money to land more accurate vocal predictions.
His goal is to place at least two pairs of gloves in every special needs school in Kenya, and believes they could be used to help the 34 million children worldwide who suffer disabling hearing loss.
“I was trying to envision how my niece’s life would be if she had the same opportunities as everyone else in education, employment, all aspects of life,” says Allela.
“The general public in Kenya doesn’t understand sign language so when she goes out, she always needs a translator. Picture over the long term that dependency, how much that plagues or impairs her progress in life … when it affects you personally, you see how hard people have it in life. That’s why I’ve really strived to develop this project to completion.”