A sign of the times…
A few years ago, I had to attend a meeting in the London offices of the CAA, and rather than pay the congestion charge, and then fight it out with the city traffic, I decided to catch the train to Waterloo, and then use a Boris Bike to cycle the last mile to the office.
It was a lovely sunny morning as I stood on the platform waiting for the 09:09 Liphook to Waterloo service.
The carriage that I boarded was almost empty, and I chose a table seat, and sat by the window, and took a sip of my coffee.
I smiled. I had bought my coffee from the young, attractive blonde woman who operated the coffee van outside the station.
I had flirted outrageously with her, and she had charmingly flirted back, despite the fact that I am probably double her age (at least!). No wonder she always has a queue for coffees. She is always cheerful and happy regardless of the weather. And the coffee is great too, so a win-win for everyone.
The Liphook train is never in much of a hurry to get to Waterloo. It meanders through Haslemere, Guildford and Woking, stopping at the many small towns and villages that constitute commuter-land.
By the time it clatters into Godalming, my carriage is starting to fill up. In compliance with the average Brits’ reluctance to engage with any strangers, many people passed through the carriage, despite the fact that there were three empty seats at my table.
Eventually, three young women shyly sat with me. I budged over to make room and reassure them, and fished my battered paperback book out of my bag.
They all pulled files and folders out of their bags, and set them on the table, and busied themselves with their textbooks. Obviously, University of Surrey kids on their way to a lecture.
I returned to my book, and attempted to read, but something was not quite right.
It took me five minutes or so to realise that they were not making much noise, and I surreptitiously glanced over at them.
It suddenly struck me that these young women were all deaf, and were enthusiastically signing to each other – their hands moving constantly; some gestures as soft as butterflies, some more direct chopping movements.
One of them caught me looking at her, and she fired a smile at me that was as bright as the sunshine pouring into the carriage, and I found myself disadvantaged in not knowing how to respond, and all I could do was offer a grin back. Embarrassing or what?
They departed the train at Guildford, still signing happily. I watched them wandering off up the platform as the train finally decided to recommence it’s groan towards Woking.
This did get me thinking. I had felt quite disconnected from three fellow human beings. If they had required my help, they would have had to write their request down, as I couldn’t sign, and I never heard one of them utter a single word.
I promised myself that I would learn British Sign Language one day.
Well, like most people, one day has still never come, and I still don’t know how to sign.
Good news is now on the horizon, that will enable those who are unable to hear, to communicate with those that can’t “speak” in sign language.
It’s the white knight of wearable technology to the rescue!
There is now hope for easy communications between those that sign, and those that can’t. The communications barrier has finally been breached!
Recent research published in Nature Electronics shows that wearable technology is able to offer a highly accurate real-time translation of sign language into speech, and delivers translations that are about 99% accurate and with a translation time of less than a second on average.
To put it simply, Yarn-based stretchable sensor arrays (YSSA) are used to track the movements of the hand, and will monitor the position of fingers, thumbs, and the movement of hands through the air.
These clever sensors are lightweight, cheap and highly sensitive. They offer stretchability and are durable and hard wearing, so they are ideal for incorporation into a wearable tech system.
Using artificial intelligence, and a specifically targeted algorithm it is possible to calculate the underlying meaning of the hand gestures and movements.
To put it simply, the sensor array is woven into a lightweight simplified glove, which flexes with the movement of the hand, fingers and thumbs. The movements of the glove generate electronic signals that are processed by the receiver and then translated into the speech equivalent.
To add even more accuracy, it was possible during the tests to stick a YSSA sensor to the side of the mouth, or near the eye of the wearer to monitor facial expressions, all of which are essential subconscious enhancements to language.
All of the data is then transmitted to a very small wirelessly-connected receiver which is worn on the body in an inconspicuous location. Once the data is received, it may be transmitted to a software application on a smart phone, and the “app” will convert the data to human speech and synthesise the words as audible and recognisable speech.
According to the report, the system is 99% accurate, and has a gesture-to-word processing time of less than one second.
At the moment, the system is in its infancy, and is a bit agricultural to look at, but in time, it is possible that the components will be small enough and discrete enough to be worn confidently by a person with a serious hearing impairment.
It will also ensure that people like me won’t miss out on having our lives enriched by being able to converse easily with someone who signs.
How fantastic is that?
The photo that I have chosen as the cover image, is of a sculture on a wall outside a school for the deaf in Prague.
It translates as “Life is beautiful, be happy and love each other”
The sculture was created by Czech Zuzana Čížkové. Photo by ŠJù under CCA-SA 3.0