Being deaf comes with a number of everyday challenges that make life considerably more difficult, but communication between the deaf and the hearing is one of the biggest.
Kenyan software engineer and Intel programmer, Roy Allela, 25, has invented something that could help the 466 million people around the globe suffering from disabling hearing loss.
The catalyst for his invention, Sign-IO, a glove that translates sign language to audio speech, came from wanting to be able to communicate with his 6-year-old deaf niece.
The gloves have flex sensors stitched on to each finger which quantifies the bend of the fingers and processes the letter being signed. They are paired via Bluetooth to a mobile phone application, which then vocalises the letters. They aim to address the language barrier between those that use sign-language and the general public.
“My niece wears the gloves, pairs them to her phone or mine, then starts signing and I’m able to understand what she’s saying,” Allela told the Guardian earlier this year. “Like all sign language users, she’s very good at lip reading, so she doesn’t need me to sign back.”
After piloting the gloves at a special needs school in rural Migori county, south-west Kenya, he discovered an important nuance of sign language that the gloves must be able to detect:
“People speak at different speeds and it’s the same with people who sign: some are really fast, others are slow, so we integrated that into the mobile application so that it’s comfortable for anyone to use it.”
Allela wants users to be able to express their individuality through the smart gloves — something especially important for young children who may be struggling with dealing with their otherness. By allowing a child to feel like spiderman or some other superhero, the gloves have the opportunity to be empowering rather than an embarrassing burden.
“It fights the stigma associated with being deaf and having a speech impediment. If the gloves look cool, every kid will want to know why you have them on.”
Users can also set the language, gender and pitch of the vocalisation through the app, with accuracy results averaging 93%, says Allela.
The current version of Allela’s gloves
Allela and his gloves recently won the hardware trailblazer award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Allela is using the prize money to increase the accuracy of vocal predictions.
Sign-IO also placed 2nd runners-up at the Royal Academy of Engineering Leaders in Innovation Fellowship in London.
Allela, who is also a data science tutor at Oxford University, wants to see at least two pairs of gloves in every special needs school in Kenya, and believes they could be used to help the 34 million children worldwide who suffer disabling hearing loss.
“I was trying to envision how my niece’s life would be if she had the same opportunities as everyone else in education, employment, all aspects of life,” says Allela.
“The general public in Kenya doesn’t understand sign language so when she goes out, she always needs a translator. Picture over the long term that dependency, how much that plagues or impairs her progress in life … when it affects you personally, you see how hard people have it in life. That’s why I’ve really strived to develop this project to completion.”