High-Tech Helping Hand
By Peter Barnes, Tech Live Washington, D.C., Bureau chief
Feb. 24 — Jose
Hernandez Rebollar's right arm is covered with wires and nodules.
Rebollar is a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the sensor-studded glove he's working on isn't a device to sooth a huge egos. Instead, it's a new technology that could be a big boost for the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The prototype glove that Rebollar working on is part of his research associated with his electrical engineering course work at GWU.
"I have to get my degree," he says.
But the work he's doing could be a big step toward a much-needed aid for the hearing impaired: a device that can translate the gestures of American Sign Language into communications anyone can understand.
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 and it correctly translates easy ASL gestures — such as the one for "smart" — 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.
Rebollar, who isn't hearing-impaired, doesn't expect the device to be manufactured and sold commercially anytime soon because of its inaccuracies. And the device 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 communications on the battlefield where silent, nonverbal communications might be vital.
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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