Say It Sign It

From Speech to Text to Gesture
by: Jerry Liao

The power of using a database to provide humans the much needed information is beyond imagination. Most of you are familiar with applications like dictionary, thesaurus, encylopedia, references, search engines and more – all powered by database systems and algorithms. But most of these applications are text based.

I did saw one application wherein the system will conduct image searches. Nope, it’s not the usual text to image search. This is image to image. The user will post an image and the system will search images that will resemble the entered image. The system will based its search on the image color, shape, contour, and others. I find this system amazing, until I heard IBM has developed an ingenious system called SiSi (Say It Sign It) that automatically converts the spoken word into British Sign Language (BSL) which is then signed by an animated digital character or avatar.

SiSi brings together a number of computer technologies. A speech recognition module converts the spoken word into text, which SiSi then interprets into gestures, that are used to animate an avatar which signs in BSL.

Upon development this system would see a signing avatar ‘pop up’ in the corner of the display screen in use — whether that be a laptop, personal computer, TV, meeting-room display or auditorium screen. Users would be able select the size and appearance of the avatar.

This type of solution has the potential in the future to enable a person giving a presentation in business or education to have a digital character projected behind them signing what they are saying. This would complement the existing provision, allowing for situations where a sign language interpreter is not available in person.

“IBM is committed to developing IT solutions that are inclusive and accessible to all members of society,” said Dr Andy Stanford-Clark, Master Inventor, IBM Hursley.

“This technology has the potential to make life easier for the deaf community by providing automatic signing for television broadcasts, and making radio news and talk shows available to a new audience over the Internet, or by providing automated voicemail transcription to allow them to make better use of the mobile network.”

Guido Gybels, Director of New Technologies at RNID, said: “RNID welcomes any development that would make the Information Society a more equal place for deaf and hard of hearing people. British Sign Language users are amongst the most disenfranchised citizens as a result of services and products not being designed with their needs in mind. There is clearly still a long way to go before such prototypes become fully capable, off-the-shelf products, but it is encouraging to see that mainstream research is contributing to this objective of a more inclusive society.”

John Glauert, Professor of Computing Sciences, UEA, said: “SiSi is an exciting application of UEA’s avatar signing technology that promises to give deaf people access to sign language services in many new circumstances.”

This project is an example of IBM’s collaboration with non-commercial organizations on worthy social and business projects. The signing avatars and the award-winning technology for animating sign language from a special gesture notation were developed by the University of East Anglia and the database of signs was developed by RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People).

With an estimated 55,000 people in the UK for whom BSL is their first language, there are great opportunities for businesses, including firms in the leisure and entertainment industries, to make themselves more accessible to this audience, and also to communicate more effectively with them.

SiSi has been developed in the UK by a research team at IBM Hursley, as part of IBM’s premier global student intern programme, Extreme Blue. In the European part of the programme, 80 of the most talented students from across Europe were selected to work on 20 projects and given whatever equipment, support and assistance they required. Working for an intense 12 week period alongside IBM technical and industry leaders, they focused on innovative technology projects, such as SiSi, all of which had real business value.

Hope this development encourages everyone of us to continuously develop applications not only to benefit businesses but to benefit society as well. Despite the advancement in technology, we will never run out of ideas – for as long as our intention to help is pure.

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