Why we’re covering this: Communication aided by technology has changed the world. It’s important to hear from as many voices as possible, and we love anyone working to help reach that goal.
Being able to communicate with anyone and everyone has long been a sci-fi dream. From the Babel Fish that allow listeners to understand alien languages in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the automatic translator in Other Space, humans have longed imagined technology that would let us communicate beyond language barriers. But a few recent technological advances have edged us that much closer to tearing down the barriers of language — and they’re pretty amazing.
First is SignAloud, invented by Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor — two sophomores at the University of Washington. The gloves read the position of the hands, wrists and fingers to convert American Sign Language (ASL) into text and speech.
SignAloud’s sensors tracking the wearer’s hands’ movements and gestures send that data via Bluetooth to a computer that matches the gesture to a database of words and phrases — if there’s a match, the computer then says the word aloud.
While they might not look so pretty at this stage, the gloves are lightweight and are designed for everyday use, “similar to hearing aids or contact lenses,” according to Pryor.
The two inventors wanted to make an easy-to-use method for native ASL speakers to communicate with the hearing world. Azodi said, “Communication is a fundamental human right, [and] we set out to make it more accessible to a larger audience.” Considering that there are a million deaf people in the United States, that’s a pretty large audience.
These aren’t the first electric gloves by any means, though they’re the first one used for real-time ASL translation. Besides hand-warming gloves and ones for typing one-handed, there have been similar glove-based technologies to control musical non-existent instruments, an idea somewhat similar to Azodi and Pryor’s invention.
Experimental composer and inventor Jaron Lanier invented the “DataGlove” 25 years ago — both were created to explore early experiments with virtual reality and an improvised musical performance piece, The Sound Of One Hand.
A lo-tech DIY version of the SignAloud and DataGlove was the Thimbletron, invented by Mark Gunderson of The Evolution Control Committee, a noise band famous for their song “Rocked By Rape“. The Thimbletron is a glove capped with normal sewing thimbles, wired to trigger different samples when the thimbles touch.
Another company called Waverly Labs is working on earbuds that will reportedly translate speech into the listener’s native language, but they have yet to unveil a public version for consumer testing. Nevertheless, SignAloud is just the latest advance in the increasingly socially-acceptable wearable technology (kind of like the glasses that help correct colorblindness) Or is it just a stepping stone until we’re all just communicating purely with brainwaves instead of using our bodies like chumps? Let us know what future technologies you’re waiting for in the comments!
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