A computer programme that translates sign language into written text could revolutionise the lives of the deaf and hard of hearing, scientists said today.
The software, which can be used on portable devices and provides near instantaneous translation, would be the first of its kind.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen hope the move will help young deaf people find work and communicate with colleagues.
Dr Ernesto Compatangelo, a lecturer in computing science at the university, said: “The aim of the technology – known as the Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT) – is to empower sign language users by enabling them to overcome the communication challenges they can experience, through portable technology.
“The user signs into a standard camera integrated into a laptop, netbook, Smartphone or other portable device such as a Tablet. Their signs are immediately translated into text which can be read by the person they are conversing with.
“The intent is to develop an application – an ‘app’ in Smartphone terms – that is easily accessible and could be used on different devices, including Smartphones, laptops and PCs.”
The technology can be used with a range of sign languages including British Sign Language (BSL) and Makaton, and can be tailored to the individual user so it recognises terms that they use.
Dr Compatangelo said: “One of the most innovative and exciting aspects of the technology is that it allows sign language users to actually develop their own signs for concepts and terms they need to have in their vocabulary, but they may not have been able to express easily when using BSL.”
He said the technology could “transform the lives of all sign language users”, research into which has been funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to improve the lives of young deaf people over the age of 16 who are in education or training.
Dr Compatangelo continued: “The key intent is to enable sign language users of this age, and beyond, to overcome the communication disadvantage they experience, allowing them to fulfil their education potential and enter the job market.
“The personalised aspect of the technology is crucial to making this happen.
“For example, for a student who is being trained in joinery, there is no sign in BSL which means ‘dovetail joint’.
“A student using PSLT can create their own sign to mean ‘dovetail joint’ allowing them to communicate easily with their tutor or other students in their class, without the limitations imposed by communications solely with BSL.”
Scientists said the device could have other purposes, including allowing a person with limited mobility to control appliances in their home, such as opening curtains or changing the channel on their television.
The service is expected to be on the market towards the end of 2013.