Kenyan Engineer Creates Gloves That Turn Sign Language Into Audible Speech

The aim of the invention by the twenty-five-year-old Kenyan engineer and innovator, Roy Allela, is to improve the communication between deaf people and those who can hear but do not know sign language.

Allela works as a tech evangelist and program manager at Intel and graduated from the University of Nairobi with a degree in Microprocessor Technology and Instrumentation.

According to statistics, about 466 million people have disabling hearing loss around the world, and 34 million of these are children. Disabling hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear in adults and a hearing loss greater than 30 dB in the better hearing ear in children.

Hearing loss can be caused by genetics, aging, complications at birth, certain infectious diseases, chronic ear infections, the use of particular drugs, and exposure to excessive noise. Yet, 60% of childhood hearing loss is due to preventable causes. These people benefit from early detection of the issue, hearing aids, captioning and sign language, and various forms of educational and social support.

Namely, Roy has created a set of gloves, called Sign-IO gloves, which translate signed hand movements into audible speech via Bluetooth and a smartphone app.

Even though they are still in the developmental stage, these gloves won awards like the ISHOW Kenya top prize in 2017, the 2018 “Hardware Trailblazer Award” at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) global finals in New York, and it also took home a second runner-up acknowledgment at the Royal Academy of Engineering Leaders in Innovation Fellowship in London.

The sensors of these gloves are located on each finger and detect the positioning of each finger, as well as how much each finger will bend into a given position. The glove connects via Bluetooth to an Android phone which will leverage use the text-to-speech function to provide translated speech to the hand gestures of a person signing.

The application offers the option of testing and setting the language locale, voice speed and voice pitch. The settings are stored in SharedPreferences, so the user sets the read request interval to the Edison for getting the advertised features. Users need to set their own preferred interval as they are just beginning to learn sign language.

Roy got the idea since she had a young niece who is deaf, and her family did not know sign language and struggled to communicate with her. He thought about all the opportunities she misses in terms of her education and employment, and all aspects of life.

Most people in Kenya don’t understand sign language, so when she went out, she needed a translator, which drastically impairs her progress in life.

Since this affected Roy personally, he understood how hard it is, and he strived to develop this project to completion. His niece now wears the gloves, pairs them with her or his phone, and starts signing.

Since people speak at different speeds, they integrated that into the mobile application so that everyone can be comfortable to use it.

This also fights the stigma linked to deafness and speech impediments. Moreover, since these gloves look cool, every child will want to know why you have them on.

Allela is one of the 16 young Africans who have been shortlisted by The Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for inventors from six countries to receive funding, training and mentoring for projects whose goal is to revolutionize sectors from agriculture and science to women’s health. The award for the winner is Sh3.2 million (£25,000) and each of the three runners up will receive Sh1.2 million (£10,000).

Allela wishes that his gloves are placed in schools for special needs children throughout Kenya, and from there, to positively affect the experiences of numerous deaf of hearing-impaired children.