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Sign-language translator uses gesture-sensing technology

A team of deaf entrepreneurs is developing software to bridge the communication gap between hearing and hearing-impaired people.

Kara Tsuboi Reporter
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Kara Tsuboi
2 min read

There are numerous apps and tech tools on the market to translate foreign languages. But sign language is a different matter. There is a major communication gap between hearing-impaired people and those who can hear.

Watch this: App that translates sign language was born of necessity

An all-deaf team of entrepreneurs from the Rochester Institute of Technology is hoping to bridge that gap with the MotionSavvy Uni, a tablet case embedded with Leap Motion's gesture-sensing technology.

When someone signs in front of the tablet, Uni's software detects the sign and checks it against the growing database of signs.

"Right now, we have about 300 signs in the system," said Ryan Hait-Campbell, the CEO of MotionSavvy. "I would say there's probably 30,000 to 100,000 signs out there. And it could be even more. Especially when you talk about foreign languages, it could go into the millions."

MotionSavvy CEO Ryan Hait-Campbell and industrial designer Jordan Stemper demonstrate the Uni. Nicholas Henry/CNET

To enable true conversation between a deaf person and a hearing person, the software can transcribe spoken word into text so it can be easily read.

"Many deaf people struggle with communication throughout their whole lives. Having this product in your hands could mean the difference between a minimum-wage job" and a six-figure job, said Hait-Campbell.

Building the Uni case and its software would not have been possible without the advances in Leap Motion's technology. Its latest version can detect motion greater than a foot away which is key for sign language since many signs involve not just the hands, but the arms and torso too. It's also very precise at picking up gestures.

MotionSavvy's Uni shows Leap Motion's precision of capturing a sign Nicholas Henry/CNET

"We think that it's the perfect level of accuracy for these more complicated applications that require precise, nuanced hand positions," said Leap Motion's cofounder and CEO, Michael Buckwald.

MotionSavvy's Uni case is available for preorder for about $200 through the company's Indiegogo fundraising campaign. The device is expected to ship at the end of 2015.