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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 September 2007, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Technique links words to signing
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Photo of the signing avatar
The avatar was developed by the University of East Anglia
Technology that translates spoken or written words into British Sign Language (BSL) has been developed by researchers at IBM.

The system, called SiSi (Say It Sign It) was created by a group of students in the UK.

SiSi will enable deaf people to have simultaneous sign language interpretations of meetings and presentations.

It uses speech recognition to animate a digital character or avatar.

IBM says its technology will allow for interpretation in situations where a human interpreter is not available.

It could also be used to provide automatic signing for television, radio and telephone calls.

'Disenfranchised citizens'

The concept has already gained the approval of the Royal National Institute for Deaf people (RNID).

"RNID welcomes any development that would make the information society a more equal place for deaf and hard of hearing people," said the charity's director of new technologies, Guido Gybels.

"Sign language users are among the most disenfranchised citizens as a result of services and products not being designed with their needs in mind."

But Mr Gybels says there is still a long way to go before such prototypes are in everyday use.

IBM runs a yearly initiative called Extreme Blue which invites technically-minded and business students to collaborate for 12 weeks.

"We had a profoundly deaf mentor, so he kept a close eye on what was being done and checking whether our translation corresponded to real BSL," said Maria Vihljajeva, the student who developed the business plan for SiSi.

The students used two signing avatars developed by the University of East Anglia.

One of them signs in BSL and the other uses Sign Supported English - a more direct translation using conventional syntax and grammar.

Converting SiSi to use other languages should also be straightforward, according to Tom Klapiscak, another student who had technical input into the project.

"We designed the SiSi architecture in such a way that new translation modules can easily be plugged into the system," he said.

"Obviously this would involve the work of creating the translation module itself - which is no small task."

Mr Gybels of the RNID says he is "very impressed" with what the students were able to achieve in just twelve weeks.

"Creating a system that can actually bridge the gap between hearing people who speak English and deaf people who use BSL is very important."

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