At the front of an auditorium filled with hundreds of people, a programmer from the Ukraine slipped on a pair of thick, black gloves, each dotted with flex sensors and a micro controller. A couple of feet away was a smartphone receiving signals from the gloves via Bluetooth. When the time was right, the programmer made a gesture, carefully and deliberately moving his hands and arms, before an automated female voice boomed through the speakers: “Nice to meet you.” The audience cheered.
This was Enable Talk, a pair of gloves that with the help of sensors and new smartphone software developed by a team of twenty-something programmers from the Ukraine, could change the way deaf people communicate with the world around them. Having worked on it for less than a year, they won first prize at Microsoft’s coveted Imagine Cup last week in Sydney, Australia, getting $25,000 in prize money. They’ll spend it on making their gloves say much more than just “Nice to meet you,” or “We want to see kangaroo” — among the dozen or so sign-language phrases that the gloves can currently recognize.
There is no limit to how many gestures they can program into the software, said team member Maxim Osika during a phone interview from Sydney. “The problem is we are not native speakers,” he added. “So it wouldn’t make sense for us to accumulate the gestures.” Once they’re back in the Ukraine, Osika and his team will work with a handful of deaf students at their college and other native signers, to build a “library of standard signs” for their device.
But it won’t be easy, thanks to the wide chasm between the languages of computer code and signs. They will have to work closely with those who speak the latter if they want their device to be truly effective. “Deaf people have their own sub culture and it’s hard to communicate with them in general,” Osika admitted. Since the project project was first introduced, a few have complained on online forums that hearing people should make more effort to understand the hearing-impaired, not the other way around.
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