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Pretty Handy? Gloves Turn Sign Language Into Speech and Text


When it comes to undergraduate study, some of us could have majored in finding house parties and sleeping through class. But for two University of Washington undergraduate students, a much more pragmatic interest in engineering and problem-solving led to an ingenious tool for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. And a $10,000 prize, to boot.

Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi created the SignAloud gloves, which use sensors to track hand position and movement. They're Bluetooth-enabled, which allows them to send the gesture information wirelessly to a computer where the data is compared against known signs in American Sign Language. If a match is recognized, the computer instantly translates the motion out loud to speech, or can convert it to text.

Other iterations of wearable sign-language translation tools require a full-arm device or video, which can be restrictive or intrusive. Pryor and Azodi prioritized a lightweight design that would make the gloves simple to manipulate and wear, allowing for functional and everyday use.

So far, the gloves have received a mixed reception, with some people wondering where they can get them, and others wondering why they're necessary. As Alex Lu notes in his piece for The Establishment: "Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words and presentation palatable to hearing people."

The students' work was rewarded with the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, given to an undergraduate team of students who develop a technology-based consumer product. The $10,000 reward should be extremely useful for developing the technology further.