Black Excellence: Meet The Kenyan Inventor Of Gloves That Turn Sign Language Into Audible Speech

by Duke Magazine

Even though technology has evolved so much over the years, sign language has remained the popular choice for speech-impaired people to establish proper communication.

But sign language comes with a lot of problems, there around somewhere between 138 to 300 different types of sign language used throughout the world today and most people don’t understand them.

A new development out of Kenya can help us to eliminate the communication barrier between deaf & hearing people by allowing deaf people to use their sign language, to communicate with everyone, face-to-face.

At age 25, Roy Allela, an engineer and inventor invented the Sign-IO gloves that can translate signed hand movements to audible speech so deaf people can “talk” even to those who don’t understand sign language.

The inspiration of Roy Allela for the creation of a smart Sign-IO glove is none other than her six-year-old niece who was born deaf. She had difficulty speaking with her family because they didn’t speak sign language.

Allela works for Intel and has good experience in data science, he also works as a data science tutor at Oxford University. With the help of his knowledge and overall experience in the domain of machine learning, Allela decided to develop smart gloves that can convert hand gestures of sign language into audio speech.

“My niece wears gloves, pairs them to phone, then starts signing & I’m able to understand what she’s saying,” says Allela. “Like all sign language users, she’s very good at lip reading, so she doesn’t need me to sign back.”

“People speak at different speeds and it’s the same with people who sign – some are fast, others are slow, so we integrated that into the mobile application so that it’s comfortable for anyone to use it.”

The Sign-IO gloves feature sensors mounted on each of the five fingers to determine their movements, including how much a finger is bent. The gloves are connected via Bluetooth to an Android app that Allela also invented which uses a text-to-speech function to convert the gestures to vocal speech.

The Sign-IO delivers give translations in real-time and it can be set to customized interpretation speeds, explains Allela. The device can also be altered to manipulate the pitch, speed, and tone of the voice.

“The general public in Kenya doesn’t understand sign language so when she goes out, she always needs a translator,” Allela told The Guardian.

“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 strived to develop this project to completion.”

According to Allela, the gloves are 93% effective at converting the signs into speech. Users can also adjust the pitch and gender of the vocalization so it sounds more like them.

They can also be stitched into kid-friendly designs such as princess or Spider-Man gloves. “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,” he says.

Allela’s goal is to have two pairs of his gloves at every special-needs school in Kenya and to eventually help the 34 million children with hearing loss worldwide.

While this incredible invention may one day help millions of people with hearing loss across the globe, it all started with simply trying to improve the life of a family member.

“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.

Allela tested the gloves at a school in rural Migori county in Kenya where he figured out how to troubleshoot one of the most important aspects of the gloves, the speed at which the signs are translated.

The gloves recently won the hardware trailblazer award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He is currently on the shortlist for the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering.

Allela is among 16 young Africans who have been shortlisted by The Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for inventors from six countries. He says the recognition is a wonderful validation of his work and a great opportunity to put African inventors on the map.

The Sign-IO gloves are currently still in the prototype phase of development but it has already received awards and prize money which helped him further improve the invention.

It has been the 2018 grand winner of the “Hardware Trailblazer Award” from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) global finals in New York and a second runner-up at the Royal Academy of Engineering Leaders in Innovation Fellowship in London.

Once it has been made available in the public market, Sign-IO gloves will be one of the many sensor-based devices that are expected to generate revenue of around $30 billion by the end of 2024.

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