Researchers create cell phones for sign language
Cornell researchers and colleagues have created cell phones that allow deaf people to communicate in sign language, the same way hearing people use phones to talk.
For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, cell phone use has largely been limited to text messaging. But technology is catching up: Cornell researchers and colleagues have created cell phones that allow deaf people to communicate in sign language — the same way hearing people use phones to talk.
“We completely take cell phones for granted,” said Sheila Hemami, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering, who leads the research with Eve Riskin and Richard Ladner of the University of Washington. “Deaf people can text, but if texting were so fabulous, cell phones would never develop. There is a reason that we like to use our cell phones. People prefer to talk.”
The technology, Hemami continued, is about much more than convenience. It allows deaf people “untethered communication in their native language” — exactly the same connectivity available to hearing people, she said.
Since the project, Mobile ASL (American Sign Language), started four years ago, the researchers have published several academic papers on their technology and given talks around the world. The first phone prototypes were created last year and are now in the hands of about 25 deaf people in the Seattle area.
Standard videoconferencing is used widely in academia and industry, for example, in distance-learning courses. But the Mobile ASL team designed their video compression software specifically with ASL users in mind, with the goal of sending clear, understandable video over existing limited bandwidth networks. They also faced such constraints as phones’ battery life and their ability to process real-time video at enough frames per second. They solved the battery life problem by writing software smart enough to vary the frames per second based on whether the user is signing or watching the other person sign.