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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 08:45 GMT
Digital characters 'talk' to the deaf
You can hear Jon Wurtzel every week on the BBC's Go Digital
BBC Go Digital's Jon Wurtzel casts a wry eye over developments in the world of technology

Using digital avatars as signing translators could significantly expand the ways deaf and hard of hearing people communicate with the hearing world.

The avatars are computer animations designed to look and move like real people.

A computer program takes spoken English and converts it in real-time to text.

The digital avatars then take this English text and sign its meaning on a display screen, in effect becoming a translator between spoken English and British sign language.

Coming to post offices

This may sound like Star Trek technology, but it is about to be piloted in post offices in the UK.

The digital avatars are virtual humans
Real-time translation could take a decade
With a computer screen displaying the signing avatar, a deaf or hard of hearing person can communicate with a postal worker and complete their transactions.

This post office avatar is not a totally fluent translator, however. It can only work with set and constrained phrases.

This is because, at the moment, the avatars are all grammar-based, which means they can only take written text, like a newspaper, and translate it into sign language.

When it comes to a conversation that is oral and in real time, the technology is not yet sophisticated enough for avatars to simultaneously translate between English and British Sign Language.

Nor could they translate a television or a radio broadcast. Experts say it may take a decade before we see that level of translation.

One of the breakthroughs the avatars could deliver is eliminating the need to book British sign language interpreters.

Great potential

At the moment, there are only 80 trained interpreters in the entire UK, which can mean you need to book an interpreter up to two months in advance.

Post Office is going to pilot the technology
Current post offices have no signing facilities
This is no use to you if you are deaf or hard of hearing and need to go to an emergency room, much less a more casual trip to a doctor or a business partner.

The potential is high, though. Imagine a perfectly fluent avatar on your handheld computer, able to translate in real-time between English and sign language.

Synchronise this programme with text messaging and mobile phones, technologies already embraced by deaf and hard of hearing users, and you have tools that could reshape the daily communication experiences of this community.

Businesses should pursue this technology, and not just because it is the right thing to do.

The deaf and hard of hearing account for 8.6 million of the 59 million people in the UK. Combine that with the millions throughout the world who would also benefit, and a huge market opportunity emerges for the right products.

You can hear Jon Wurtzel on Go Digital, which is webcast on BBC News Online every Monday at 1500 GMT. Or you can listen to the programme on BBC World Service radio on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
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