When you first read about the SignAloud glove, a high-tech device to automate sign language, it’s easy to feel like the future is finally here. However, although a technological feat, it seems the real needs of the Deaf community might have been overlooked. Is this a feel-good story or not-so-fast? As so often, unfortunately, the reality seems to be a bit more complex.
No sooner had two undergraduate students at the University of Washington invented the SignAloud glove, which purports to translate sign language in real time to text or speech as the wearer gestures, advocates started raising concerns. They claimed the invention was clunky at best and missed key parts of the grammar of ASL by focusing solely on what the hands do. Facial and body expression are important factors in sign language as well and get completely ignored by the device. It does not seem the inventors bother to check with the Deaf community while developing the gloves.
Furthermore, they also pointed out this glove creation was rooted in the preoccupations of the hearing world, not the needs of Deaf signers. Although the gloves are presented as devices to improve accessibility for the Deaf, it’s the signers, not the hearing people, who must wear them, carry the computers, or modify their rate of signing. Should we bother designing these wearable technologies when more fundamental issues still need resolving?
Additionally, vocabulary remained rather limited as the system does not have access to enough data sets of people signing to train machine-learning algorithms adequately.
What are the lessons to be learned, you think? Isn’t this the perfect illustration of how important it is to always include target users in your design process?
At any rate, it’s a topic already on mainstream media’s radar, as evidenced by coverage in the Atlantic. In the 2017 piece, the author raises similar concerns about the devices failing to capture the nuances of sign language and serving the needs of the hearing more than the Deaf. Likewise, recent studies have pointed out the need for improved diversity in sign language interpreting. If nothing else, it’s safe to say there’s more work to be done before the perfect solution emerges.