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Pretty Handy? Gloves Turn Sign Language Into Speech and Text

Pretty Handy? Gloves Turn Sign Language Into Speech and Text Carousel image: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Video: Lemelson MIT
Pretty Handy? Gloves Turn Sign Language Into Speech and Text Carousel image: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Video: Lemelson MIT

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.

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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. 

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