EnableTalk Gloves Worn on the Wrong Hand?

In the post “High Tech Gloves Translate Sign Language into Text and Voice” there is a video about EnableTalk gloves. This technology is being developed to translate sign language into speech. I wondered how it would effect the Deaf Community and those who are speech impaired. Would they welcome the technology? Ocean, from the Deaf Pagan Crossroads, provided a very insightful comment which I wanted to share with readers.

As a Deaf person myself who has been signing for over 30 years, while I found the video interesting and the idea of such gloves intriguing, I cannot say I am all that impressed with this concept.

I suspect that the people involved with the development of this invention are hearing individuals with a limited understanding of the linguistics of sign language and thus a lack of understanding as to why and how gloves will have considerable limitations in translation.

First of all, from what I saw in the video…what the gloves were translating was not actual sign language – it was fingerspelled words. In another words, it was merely translating manually spelled English into text. While fingerspelling is incorporated into sign languages (each country has its own sign language…here in the USA we use American Sign Language or ASL; in Australia they use Auslan, which is Australian Sign Language), sign language is far more than just fingerspelling. However, I did not see any examples of true signing in the video.

The second and larger problem is that appears to be a common misconception that sign language is “all about the hands.” As a matter of fact, the hands make up only one aspect of the grammar and syntax of sign language. Facial expression is a significant part of it also, as is body language, directional movement, placement, speed of the signs, etc. To merely think that one can get a full translation of the message merely from a pair of gloves is missing the overall components of sign language. It’s far more complex than this.

Last, but not least…these gloves seem to convey the impression that sign language is merely a manual component of the printed language/spoken language, and its just a matter of converting it. This demonstrates a lack of understanding and respect for sign language as a language in its own right. Any attempt to create a translation device has to take into consideration a literal translation of the signs may not necessarily convey the accurate meaning what is being said. For example if I sign “sunrise wakeup see thrill” another Deaf person understands this to mean “It was truly a beautiful inspiring moment for me to wake up and watch the sun rise this morning.” But are these gloves going to be able to recognize that difference in the languages, comprehend the true meaning of the signs, and be able to make an accurate translation?

I highly doubt it.

Personally, I would rather put my hands in the eyes of human capabilities, than rely on this type of technology.

At Mashable Lifestyle “Gloves Turn Sign Language Gestures into Speech with App” covers more of the hightech and business end of the project. The EnableTalk team isn’t doing a very good marketing job however since the glove is meant for the Deaf, heard of hearing, and people with speech difficulties but the video is not closed captioned.

But for all the difficulties it does seem the team hopes to make a difference in people’s lives. ““A while ago, in the supermarket we saw a cashier having difficulties understanding a speech-impaired person and we thought how useful it would be to have a device to overcome this communication barrier,” the trio wrote in their Imagine Cup entry. “We were very surprised to find out that no such devices are available on the market. Later, our interaction with hearing-impaired athletes at our school confirmed that such a solution is needed for them to communicate more fully with the world.”” (Mashable Lifestyle)

Rebecca J. Rossen of the Atlantic writes that “It’s easy to see the limitations of this technology — most obviously that once the deaf person’s words become speech, then what? Even for skilled lipreaders, many settings (e.g. darker rooms) make lipreading difficult and many hearing people do not articulate their words in ways that make lipreading easier. Additionally, many deaf people may not want to carry around the glove or may find that the computer processing is too slow or unnatural. Lastly, these gloves cannot capture the facial expressions that are crucial to ASL grammar. Even so, it’s great to see so much technology, brainpower, and now some Microsoft cash applied to raising up more voices — including those translated from motions and spoken by computers.”

About Tara "Masery" Miller

Tara "Masery" Miller is a Neo-Pagan panentheist Gaian mage living in the Ozarks with her husband and pets. She's also a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. She is the editor of Rooted in the Body, Seeking the Soul which you can find at Immanion press. www.immanion-press.com/info/books.asp She has a minor is religion from Southeast Missouri State Missouri State University with an emphasis in mysticism. Masery has lead various groups over the years and organized Pagan Pride Day events. Her magic and author page is at www.taramaserymiller.com

  • kadiera

    You know, I wondered about that. I have this horrible feeling that it’ll be like throwing something into Bablefish (or trying to read google’s built in captioning on youtube).

    It’s a neat idea….just more complicated than they seem to think.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    It seems to me a high-tech solution that does poorly what a simple pad and pencil accomplishes much better.

  • http://www.deafpagancrossroads.com/ Ocean

    Thanks for the kind words and the attention to my concerns, Masery.

    The other issue which has been brought up by some of my Deaf colleagues and which I have to agree with is this – while this device might make it possible for a hearing person to understand signs expressed by a Deaf person, how is the Deaf person supposed to understand what the hearing person says back to them? I don’t see anything that indicates that the gloves are able to convert spoken language into a visual language that can be comprehended by Deaf people.

    It’s kinda like the issue that I have on a daily basis – I happen to be a Deaf person who has good speech skills which can be comprehended by most people. However, the harsh reality is that the best speech skills in the world are not going to change the fact that I can’t hear. If you don’t get my attention first, face me so I can read your lips, enunciate carefully, make sure you don’t have anything in your mouth…or aren’t talking too fast or don’t mumble or don’t have a bushy mustache or you’re not standing in front of a window or a bunch of other issues that can affect communication, then ***maybe*** I will be able to understand you.

    Then again, maybe not.

    I have to agree with Marc here… a simple pad and pencil would probably do the trick a heckuva of a lot easier, a heckuva a lot better, and a heckuva a lot cheaper.


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