Sight translation by Tara Adams.

Technology has revolutionized our lives and often times right from the palm of our hands. We have smartphones full of apps that help us streamline everyday tasks, watches that count our steps and monitor our heart rates and even eyewear that can connect us to the internet.

This past May, inventors/students from the University of Washington, created gloves called SignAloud, that Deaf and hard of hearing people can wear, which will translate their signs into speech or text. The creation of gloves like these are not the first attempt at wearable technology to translate signs to speech/text. Texas A&M created something similar in 2015.

The inventors, Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor, won a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize worth $10,000-15,000. The inventors stated: “Our purpose for developing these gloves was to provide an easy-to-use bridge between native speakers of American Sign Language and the rest of the world.” Pryor additionally said, “Our gloves are lightweight, compact and worn on the hands, but ergonomic enough to use as an everyday accessory, similar to hearing aids or contact lenses.”

At first glance, the concept is great: creating ways for Deaf and hearing people to communicate directly. However there are substantial shortcomings with the gloves and other wearable technology that those unfamiliar with ASL and Deaf culture wouldn’t anticipate. “A lot of the feedback that we’ve been receiving goes down to this idea that we are not understanding the culture — there’s a whole deaf culture around this — and by no means are we trying to interfere or impose something in that culture or community,” Azodi said.

ASL is made up of so much more than the signs; it’s an intricate blend of signs, facial expressions, sign production and intensity. Unfortunately, gloves and other wearable technology can only capture the individual signs, not the combined elements that comprise the complete language including syntax and grammar. As with any spoken language, people sign/speak with their own accent, dialect and unique use of language. The gloves also won’t be able to account for a user who may be experiencing cognitive, physical, or emotional trauma that would affect their ability to communicate clearly.

In the video that demonstrates how the gloves work, the inventor signed rather robotically, unnaturally and in a manner that native users don’t sign. This is where a live interpreter, whether onsite or via video, is absolutely necessary because live interpreters work with all of the elements of language, culture and the environment. On the other hand, interpreters aren’t always with Deaf individuals in social settings, when shopping etc, so the concept of the gloves seems fitting. But one missing component is the Deaf community. As innovation continues, Deaf community engagement will support innovators in uncovering the best means to bridge communication gaps.

Ultimately it’s wonderful to see inventors working on technologies that have the potential to enhance life, bridge gaps and create new opportunities for people. Hopefully they won’t lose site of the Deaf and hard of hearing individuals they aim to support. To date, wearable technology, at least with today’s technological limitations, haven’t quite bridged the gap.