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U-Dub Engineers Developing Sign Language for Cellphone Use

Could sign language appear on HD Radio displays in cell phones?

Could signed language appear on HD Radio displays in cell phones? A group at the University of Washington said they’ve developed software to enable people who are deaf or hard of hearing to use American Sign Language over a mobile phone.

The university said a team of UW engineers got the phones working together this spring, and recently received a National Science Foundation grant for a field project set to begin next year in Seattle.

Those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing communicate by cell phone now using text messages, but they’d like to see someone signing in a cellphone video. UW engineers say that’s possible now in Sweden and Japan.

In the U.S., low data transmission rates on cellular networks, combined with limited processing power on mobile devices, have so far prevented real-time video transmission with enough frames per second to be used to transmit ASL.

The UW team tried different ways to get comprehensible signed language on low-resolution video. They discovered that the most important parts of the image to transmit in high resolution is around the face and hands. They say they’ve developed a way to encode a high-quality image of those areas, combined with a lower number of bits devoted to encoding the rest of the body.

I wondered if this discovery has applications for HD Radio receivers that will eventually be incorporated into cell phones and posed the question to Dr. Ellyn Sheffield, co-director of the International Center for Accessible Radio Technology (ICART), a collaborative effort among NPR, Harris Corp. and Towson University.

She said the group had considered it. “It’s cool and it’s something we could consider using in future generations” of accessible design features for HD Radio receivers.

However, only about 10% of deaf consumers in the United States use American Sign Language to communicate. The other 90% use a variety of assistive technology, including hearing aids and cochlear implants, for their day-to-day hearing needs, according to Sheffield.

Right now, ICART is focused on a text display to “capture the largest market of deaf and hard-of-hearing,” some 30 million consumers — think Boomers — “and particularly the elderly who are ‘late deafened,’ but whose command of reading is pretty good,” she says. The culturally Deaf community, those deaf from birth communicating almost exclusively with ASL, in general tend to read more slowly than hearing folks, probably a function of missing auditory feedback, but with buffering ICART believes it can help that situation.

ICART had a display in a dashboard with a Delphi receiver at the Harris booth at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. It has some exciting projects in the works, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy for now.

Mobile video sign language, meanwhile, won’t be widely available until a major commercial cell phone manufacturer provides it, the UW said. One provider has expressed interest, according to the UW announcement.

As someone who wore headphones for a good chunk of the day for nearly a decade of on-air work, I appreciate all experiments in this arena.