Smart gloves can recognize American Sign Language and convert to text

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Monika Wisniewska/123RF
One of the areas where it’s been truly amazing to watch technology make progress over the past few years is in accessibility. From gadgets that are designed to help blind people to see the world around them, to assistive technology that can help paralyzed people to walk, it’s a pleasure to be able to write about technology that can profoundly transform people’s lives for the better.

The latest potential example? A low-cost smart glove created by researchers at the University of California San Diego, which promises to automatically translate American Sign Language (ASL) into digital text that appears on a corresponding computer or smartphone. To use the glove, the wearer simply signs letters in the ASL alphabet, which are then recognized by way of variances in the electrical resistance. These variances allow an onboard computer to work out which letter is being signed, and then to relay this information via Bluetooth — no cameras required.

“The key innovative element of our device is the use of a conductive polymer composite at the knuckles, which are highly sensitive to bending and stretching,” Dr. Darren Lipomi, head of UC San Diego’s Lipomi Research Group, told Digital Trends. “There are other gesture-recognition gloves out there, but ours is the first to use extremely simple components that can be replicated by other researchers in the field of stretchable, wearable electronics to test their materials.”

The components in the glove add up to less than $100 in cost, making this a potentially affordable solution to a challenging problem.

gloves american sign language text screen shot 2017 07 13 at 18 24

“The [biggest] challenge of the project was one of integration,” Lipomi continued. “My research team is made up of chemists, chemical engineers, and materials scientists — me included. We are not specialists in electronics. The key was getting advanced materials to interact with electronic components one might find at a hardware store.”

Lipomi says that “essentially all the credit” goes to his graduate student, Timothy O’Connor, who worked tirelessly for two years to complete the project.

As to what’s next for the project, Lipomi said the next step is to incorporate tactile sensations on the interior of the glove. In addition to signing, he said he thinks there are also commercializable aspects in both virtual and augmented reality, as well as robotic surgery, medical training, and gaming.

A paper describing the work was published in the journal PLOS One.

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