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Sign Language Via Cell Phone, You Heard Right


Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals may soon have access to a cell phone capable of transmitting American sign language. University of Washington engineers are working on a device that can optimize compressed video signals for sign language.

Cell phone usage is ubiquitous: according to Cellphone.org, 89 percent of Americans used a cell phone in 2009. But there are many people who are not included in this statistic because they have a medical challenge that does not allow them to use a traditional mobile phone.

Mobile Video Phones Make Sign Language Possible

The MobileASL (American Sign Language) team has been working to change that. They have improved the quality of the image around the hands and face on video phone transmissions, and they also use motion detection to identify when a person is signing, which can extend the phone’s battery life when the video is being used.

The University of Washington engineers recently completed its first field test of the video phone device along with 11 volunteers in a summer program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Eve Riskin, a UW professor of electrical engineering, explained that although they knew the cell phones worked in a lab, they wanted to test them in real life.

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“This is the first study of how deaf people in the United States use mobile video phones,” she said. “The field study is an important step toward putting this technology into practice,” because it allowed the participants to test the phones in their daily lives for three weeks.

In this study, the average call duration was 90 seconds, and the volunteers made about 200 calls during the first two and a half weeks of the study. Although most of the study participants said they currently preferred to use texting or e-mail for distance communication, they rated their experience with the MobileASL phone as a positive one.

One of the volunteers noted that while texting is good for short messages, use of the video mobile phone is similar to “making a real phone call.” Texting can be confusing, while the MobileASL phone can eliminate that problem. Tong Song, a Chinese national who is studying at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, pointed out that “with the MobileASL phone people can see each other eye to eye, face to face, and really have better understanding.”

New high-end cell phones, such as the iPhone 4 and the HTC Evo, offer video conferencing, but broadband companies have blocked video conferencing from their networks and will be offering expensive plans for heavy users. The UW engineers estimate that iPhone’s FaceTime video conferencing service uses nearly 10 times the bandwidth of MobileASL.

Riskin noted that “We want to deliver affordable, reliable ASL on as many devices as possible.” The UW engineers say the MobileASL system could be integrated with any of the new, high-tech devices that have a video camera on the same side as the screen. Hopefully it won’t be long before deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have a cell phone they can use to communicate via sign language.

University of Washington