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May 15, 2004

NUS team giving a voice to sign language

From: The Straits Times - Singapore - May 15, 2004

It's working on a system to translate signs into sound and text, incorporating facial expressions and actions

By Ho Ka Wei

SIGN language may soon get a voice as researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) are working on a system to translate the hand actions into sound and text.

While similar research is being carried out in many places around the world, the NUS team aims to incorporate other non-verbal communication, like facial expressions, to add emotional depth to the translated signs.

For instance, while a series of hand gestures may convey individual words like 'you' and 'study', the NUS solution aims to couple this with the facial expression and other physical actions made to ask the other party 'Are you studying very hard?'

Such an innovation could mean applications for not only the deaf but also able-bodied folk, who may be able to communicate and interact with their computers and others with mere gestures.

The team's adviser, Associate Professor Surendra Ranganath, said: 'Our work may have applications in other areas like intelligent computers that can 'look' at how people are responding to an online tutorial or a game and perhaps adjust the pace accordingly.'

The team, from the department of electrical and computer engineering, includes doctorate candidate Sylvie Ong, 34, and master's degree student Kong Wei Weon, 29.

Most research in this area looks into translating just the hand gestures in sign language - missing out on other non-verbal cues, such as a raised eyebrow.

'That makes it difficult for another party to know what the signer fully means,' said Ms Ong. 'It's like throwing out every other word in our normal speech.'

The research involves the use of specially-wired gloves, home video cameras, and software to tabulate the readings - at some 60 samples a second. They have so far worked with about 15 deaf people to analyse a series of facial expressions together with the sign language.

Such work is a boon, given the growing awareness here on the need to make technology and the Internet accessible to the disabled.

Ms Chia Woon Yee, a spokesman for the Society for the Physically Disabled, said: 'Currently, not many websites here are designed with the disabled in mind. But this will soon change with some organisations helping to promote Web access to all.'

Singapore is behind countries like the United States, Britain and Australia in this aspect, where laws exist to ensure that the disabled are not denied Web access.

However, an Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore spokesman said yesterday: 'While there is no law in Singapore to enforce accessibility compliance, government websites will increasingly be made more accessible to the blind, deaf and those with motor-impairments.'

Enabling Dimensions, a provider of Web solutions that meet the needs of the disabled and the elderly, is concerned that the public lacks awareness on this subject.

Managing director Atul Pant said: 'The essence of Web accessibility is really providing information in such a way that it can be received through multiple senses.'

Make websites disabled-friendly, not flash-y

A KEY factor in making your website disabled-friendly is providing alternative text to describe the video, graphic or audio elements on it.

This is important in today's context as more websites get Flash-y, but less friendly.

There is a set of universal guidelines set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines working group, part of Net development body World Wide Web Consortium.

It is updating its 1999 version. More information can be found on its website,

Web designer and tetraplegic Roslee Karim, 34 - he has limited use of his limbs - as well three others, recently rejigged a website for the Society for the Physically Disabled to make it more disabled-friendly.

He offered a few tips:
*Try to refrain from using Flash and PDF files as screen-reading software can't pick up such material - simple HTML will do.

*Have better colour contrast, such as a white background and black text.

*Limit the need to click to get information to cater to those with limited hand functions.

He told The Straits Times: 'The Internet has enabled me to see things beyond the four walls of my home and Singapore. I can communicate with friends without even lifting up the phone. It has opened up new horizons for me.'

Two sites that let you test if a webpage is disabled-friendly are and

Copyright @ 2004 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.