Scientists translate sign language to text in pioneering phone software

PIONEERING technology which translates sign language into text is being developed by Scottish scientists in a major boost for people suffering from speech and hearing difficulties.

The new software – the first of its kind in the world – has been developed for use on portable devices, such as smartphones, and will allow users to turn sign language into words. Users will even be able to customise the sign language to their own specific needs.

The Aberdeen University scientists behind the breakthrough claim the technology has the potential to transform how sign language users – from the profoundly deaf to those who have lost hearing in later life – will be able to communicate.

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The Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT ) has been developed by computing scientists at Technabling, a spin-out from Aberdeen University. The PSLT recognises sign language using a small camera which can be integrated in most mobile devices, such as smartphones, tablet Pcs and netbooks, and then renders it as text displayed on the device’s main screen.

Dr Ernesto Compatangelo, a lecturer in computing science who is director of Technabling, said: “The aim of the technology is to empower sign language users by enabling them to overcome the communication challenges they can experience, through portable technology.

“The user signs into a standard camera integrated into a laptop, netbook, Smartphone or other portable device such as a tablet. Their signs are immediately translated into text which can be read by the person they are conversing with.

“The intent is to develop an application – an “app” in Smartphone terms – that is easily accessible and could be used on different devices.”

He said the PSLT technology had the potential to be used with a range of sign languages including British Sign Language (BSL) and Makaton. More than 50,000 people with speech problems use BSL as their first or preferred language.

Dr Compatangelo said: “One of the most innovative and exciting aspects of the technology, is that it allows sign language users to actually develop their own signs for concepts and terms they need to have in their vocabulary, but they may not have been able to express easily when using BSL.”

The research is being funded by the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to enhance the lives of deaf people with special emphasis in benefiting young people who are either in education or training.

A spokesman for Technabling said: “As a learning tool, the PSLT can be easily and effectively used by those who are learning to sign. So far, these learners needed a sign language expert in front of them to check that they were able to sign correctly. This is a problem, due to the scarce availability of sign language experts and to the consequent cost of such training.

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“The PSLT can replace the human expert in many occasions, allowing learners to practice sign language whenever and wherever they like, driving costs substantially down.”

A university spokeswoman said: “Scientists on the project are now encouraging sign language users from Aberdeen city and shire to get in touch to become involved with its ongoing development. It is anticipated that the technology will be available as a product by next year.”