The future of deaf technology?

technology screen

Forbes magazine recently reported on four new technology products for Deaf people that were dubbed to make a splash. Andy Palmer questions whether they’d be game changers or fizzlers.

Ever since I can remember, technology has been at the centre of deaf life. I’m well into my thirties now but clearly recall the first textphone we had installed at our family home.

It seemed enormous to me, a big brown metallic box that spewed out ticker tape messages. It towered over me as I looked up at it placed majestically on the living room sideboard.

It represented the opposite of the technology of today. Fed by a copper telephone wire, it didn’t need a screen or internet connection to work. It just wanted paper and ink.

It was indestructible. Dependable. The signal was always full.

Dad was and is always ahead of the times. He had a fax machine, PC, Nokia communicator and pager way before any of my friend’s families had them. He had a business to run and needed to stay in touch.

Although he’s retired now, he’s still playing the game. We ‘Glide’ because he has a smartphone and tablet and uploads his images to the Cloud for backup.

Deaf-specific technology is often touted as the future but I can’t put my finger on anything that has made it big.

Would he use an app that translated sign language into speech and lug his tablet everywhere he went? I don’t think so.

But if some American companies are to be believed – that is the future of technology for deaf people. Sign Language recognition technology.

I watched an advert recently, which showed a deaf American girl named Alex using her tablet to communicate with a non-deaf soccer player (footballer) from next door. The app she’s using tracks the movement of her hands, recognises the signs, apparently deals with the grammatical issues and provides a verbal translation.

In response, Jared, the boy, has his speech translated into text for her. Their friendship blossoms as they relax and chat on the veranda.

It’s amazing.

A barrier between neighbours torn down. A friendship born. A divide crossed. It is a brilliant example of how technology can be used to better connect hearing people to their deaf neighbours or customers or patients.

But is it really going to happen?

I mean. It was just an advert – I don’t know anyone who has actually ever used anything like that for real. These things always seem to be coming out soon but it never quite seems to happen.

Google Glass is no more. Who uses those sign language dictionary apps that end up slowly fingerspelling every sign that it doesn’t know?

The technology that seems to have made the most impact is mainstream. Apps like Skype, OoVoo, Glide or simple text messaging and Whatsapp.

Facebook is probably the most used piece of deaf communication technology.

Some friends even say that next-generation text relay – which I think is quite good – is a bit fiddly on a mobile phone and cuts out too often. It’s been abandoned.

The funny thing is, that despite all the advancements in technology, it is still so often unreliable. We’re often battling buffering or frozen screen. And let’s be honest, we’ve got used to life being that way.

Every time I try to show someone some cool new app, my battery is about to go flat, there’s no signal, or it just doesn’t work as well as I hoped. Hopefully that won’t be the case with apps like these – If they ever make it to the UK.

We tolerate buffering for a video – but would we tolerate buffering in a conversation.

Another interesting new invention out recently is a solar powered hearing aid battery recharger. The batteries last for up to three years and can be recharged every day saving thousands of pounds.

The device could have widespread use in the developing world for the hundreds of millions of people who could benefit from cheaper hearing aid technology and the batteries to power them.


MotionSavvy UNI

motion savvy uni exampleFounded by a team of students from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, this was heralded as “the world’s first two-way communication software for the deaf.” UNI translates American Sign Language (ASL) into speech, and speech into text. It utilizes a special camera to track the location of both hands and all ten fingers. Graphic representations of the hands provide live feedback to make sure gestures are being captured correctly. The software’s dictionary can be expanded with customized signs added by the user. There’s also an option to upload those signs to the Internet, to share with others. The more an individual uses the system, the more accurate and tailored it becomes. To facilitate the hearing-to-deaf half of the communication, the package also includes Dragon Nuance Pro, dubbed one of the leading pieces of voice recognition software. The company is planning to release it in September 2015.

iseewhatyousay exampleISEEWHATYOUSAY (from Digital Army Devices, Inc.) captures spoken language on a smartphone, converts it into text, and sends the text via Bluetooth to a remote user’s device. The company offers a specialized receiving device about the size of a flash stick, and has begun to offer apps to receive the text on smartphones and wearables. A huge segment of the deaf and hard of hearing community is made up of elderly people who lost their hearing later in life and retain the ability to speak. This product could be a game-changer for them. There is a video that helps to explain and demonstrate the product.

solar ear equipmentSolar Ear

More than half of the 360 million people worldwide with a disabling hearing loss live in low-to middle-income countries. Current production levels of hearing aids meets less than 10% of the global need, and the cost of hearing aids and batteries has often been beyond the reach of the poor. Solar Ear is a solar-powered hearing aid battery that costs a fraction of what traditional batteries cost, and lasts for 2-3 years (rather than one week). The company also offers complete hearing aids at greatly reduced prices. In the video, the company’s founder explains the product, the company’s mission, and how both were inspired by the death of his teenage daughter.

hayleigh's cherished charms exampleHayleigh’s Cherished Charms

Hayleigh, 10, noticed that many of her classmates at school hid their hearing aids behind their hair. “I wanted to make my hearing aids shine and be fancy and proud of my hearing aids,” says Hayleigh. So she started designing “hearing aid bling”. Hayleigh’s Cherished Charms are available in a variety of designs and colours, including some for cochlear implants. Through her growing family business, Hayleigh, now 15, also makes charms for boys and adults.

See also Apple Watch: Invisible feature helps woman who is deaf and registered blind to navigate.