Sign language is used by millions of people around the world, but unlike Spanish, Mandarin or even Latin, theres no automatic translation available for those who cant use it. SLAIT claims the first such tool available for general use, which can translate around 200 words and simple sentences to start using nothing but an ordinary computer and webcam.

Source: SLAITs real-time sign language translation promises more accessible online communication - TechCrunch

This is definitely interesting and exciting. It’s also great that Dr. Vicars is involved. However, a vocabulary of 200 signs is incredibly small. My 2-year-old knows thousands of signs and even so, knowing exactly what he wants can still be a challenge. This system is clearly very, very early in development.

I’m certainly not an expert on ASL (though I learn more every day), but I see some major challenges here:

  • ASL has no majorly used writing system, so this is really transcribing to an ASL gloss, and because there’s no majorly used writing system, the available corpus of text for analysis is very limited, making further improvements difficult.
  • It’s being created by Europeans, not Americans. Europe has a number of sign languages, but ASL isn’t one of them. ASL is mainly used in the United States and Canada, and while it’s related to LSF (French sign language), it’s not LSF. At least one of the individuals involved was active in the US previously, which makes this make more sense, but even so, it’s odd to be so far removed from Deaf community that is being served by this work.

I wish this group luck, despite those challenges! Definitely exciting stuff.