MotionSavvy’s UNI Converts Sign Language to Audio

For most hearing impaired people, the inability to properly and precisely communicate with the hearing often leads to frustration, anger, and isolation. Unless a hearing person knows sign language, which is unlikely, the deaf are forced to communicate by pen and paper using a sort of pigeon English.

However, with the advancement of speech and other technologies, several solutions aiming to lower the communication barrier are hitting the market. Considering that there are roughly 250 million deaf people in the world, according to the World Health Organization, this is indeed welcome news.

MotionSavvy, a startup from Alameda, Calif., has just taken the wraps off UNI, an assistive device that features a tablet, smart case, and mobile app. Using gesture and speech recognition, sign language is converted to audio, and spoken word is translated to text in real time without needing a Web connection.

"Every aspect of interaction with a hearing person is difficult, to the point that we feel hopeless," said Ryan Hait-Campbell, CEO and co-founder of MotionSavvy, in an email. "We feel so hopeless that there is nothing that can be done. We are trying to give deaf people the ability to live the life that they want without any limits."

UNI uses Microsoft's text-to-speech software to convert signs to speech, and Nuance Communications' automatic speech recognition (ASR) engine. Employing LEAP motion technology allows the device to convert signs into voice so that a hearing person can understand what is being said. 

Just like other languages, sign language isn’t universal, and the initial MotionSavvy offering will use American Sign Language (ASL). However, Hait-Campbell says that with the company's sign-builder program, UNI users will be able to individualize their devices and other languages will be added in the future. In addition, since people's signs can vary, the Smart Recognition feature allows users to train their devices to recognize different gestures by adding new signs and words.

MotionSavvy consists of a team of deaf and hearing-impaired engineers with design and programming experience from Microsoft, Nintendo, and Railcomm. UNI is one of several devices and apps that have recently made headlines and created buzz considering the dearth of offerings for the hearing impaired.

"All these technologies are coming together at the perfect moment," Hait-Campbell says. "Technologies for the deaf are finally coming out because technology has become cheaper and more advanced. It has taken so long because the big corporations that have been researching this technology are not pushing it out commercially since it doesn't impact them personally. Most of the research now is coming from universities. Universities are pushing this technology further, and without their research we would not have been able to develop this product."

"With UNI still in beta, MotionSavvy has launched an IndieGoGo campaign for further development. Pricing is $99 upfront, $99 due at shipment, and $20 per month on a subscription basis. The official release is expected for December 2015."

There are a couple of technologies out right now that are working on helping the deaf converse with the hearing in similar ways. Another is Transcense, a new app that translates speech in real time so the deaf can participate in meetings, presentations, and group conversations. Transcense catches conversations involving several people and assigns each person a unique color so the deaf person can see who said what. The app uses speech-to-text technology to translate the spoken words into text that the deaf person can read in real time.

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