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American Sign Language Goes Mobile

American Sign Language Goes Mobile

Electrical engineers have enabled quality sign-language video chats over ordinary-speed cellphone networks.

American Sign Language Goes Mobile

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - 15:15

Inside Science Television

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Inside Science Buzzwords:

  1. Bit – The smallest unit of information in a smartphone, computer or other electronic digital device.
  2. Bit rate – The number of bits transmitted in a second.
  3. Bandwidth – In wireless communications, the maximum amount of bits per second that can be transmitted over a network.

Story Transcript:

REPORTER: It’s a sign of the times. American Sign Language is going mobile. Researchers at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering have developed breakthrough software that enables cell phones to send and receive low-bit-rate video with high-quality images. The software allows individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to use American Sign Language, or ASL, for the first time over cellphone networks. Mobile ASL, as it's known, brings many advantages over texting.

Eve A. Riskin, Ph.D.(Electrical Engineer, University of Washington): It can be really difficult to have a two-way conversation with texting because it's asynchronous. You send a message, you have to wait. Often, it’s misunderstood. I don’t think anybody would choose to only communicate using texts. You would rather have a voce conversation that’s two way, that instantaneous.

REPORTER: In 2009, Apple introduced Facetime, which enables mobile video chats. But the bit rate is extremely high, and most cellphone networks can't support it. Mobile ASL uses significantly less bandwidth than Facetime, enabling it to work over cell networks.

Eve A. Riskin, Ph.D.: We quickly detect where the hands and face are and we have our encoder give more information to the hands and face so that they look better. And this is done at the expense of the background, but we don’t really care so much about the background. And so we wind up with a better quality video in the part of the video where it matters, the hands and face.

REPORTER: All signs point to a bright future for Mobile ASL. Engineering and science. Making mobile communication accessible to everyone. I’m Josh Lebowitz reporting.  

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