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February 20, 2003

A Helping Hand

From: TechTV - 20 Feb 2003

Prototype glove gives hope that hearing impaired will communicate verbally and easily.
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By Peter Barnes, Tech Live Washington, DC Bureau chief

Jose Hernandez Rebollar's right arm is covered with wires and nodules. There's a small, flat black box on his forearm. They're all connected to the glove he's wearing, which is also wired. The whole apparatus, in turn, is connected to a laptop computer. When he raises his arm and points to his forehead, a mechanical, synthetic voice, says, "smart... smart."

The movement is American Sign Language for "smart."

Rebollar is a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He has developed promising new technology for the deaf and hearing impaired. It's a special type of glove that's covered with sensors and can translate sign language into text and even synthesized speech. See how it works, and what else it could be used for, tonight on "Tech Live."

Rebollar isn't hearing impaired, nor does he have any hearing impaired relatives. The glove is just research associated with his electrical engineering coursework.

"I have to get my degree," he says.

Real-time communication

The glove uses sensors to detect the positions of fingers on a hand and the positions of the hand and arm in relation to the body. The black box is a microcontroller attached to the forearm that collects the signals and feeds them into software in a laptop computer.

"[It detects] in real time the components of the movement I'm doing, and then that goes into a decision tree," Rebollar says. "So you get to know where your starting position is, where your final position is, and detect the movement in the middle."

The glove is still a work in progress. It correctly translates easy words nearly 100 percent of the time. But as for hard, complicated words, "when you have different words that start with the same hand shape or the same orientation or position, [or that's] just different for one specific feature, then [the success rate is] 60 percent, 70 percent," Rebollar says.

Not perfect, but promising

Rebollar doesn't expect the device to be manufactured and sold commercially anytime soon, especially since it isn't always accurate and is still slower than other forms of electronic and synthetic communication for the hearing impaired, such as handheld devices that they can spell on.

But he believes his glove could someday be useful for the hearing impaired in medical and emergency care applications, such as in communicating with firemen in a house fire or communicating with doctors and nurses in a hospital. He also says that military researchers are interested in using his system for nonverbal communications on the battlefield.

Other researchers have tested high tech gloves for deaf communication, but their research is generally limited to translating letters in finger spelling. Rebollar's device goes one step further with its ability to translate gestures.

Perhaps more importantly, the glove offers hope that communicating verbally will someday come naturally to those who can't.

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