Cell phones for Deaf People? Great!

Man signing in front of a cellphone

I got excited after reading this article from Physorg.com about a cell phone created by Cornell professor and colleagues that allow deaf people to communicate in sign language — the same way hearing people use phones to talk.

Sheila Hemami, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering, who leads the research with Eve Riskin and Richard Ladner of the University of Washington said that, “Deaf people can text, but if texting were so fabulous, cell phones would never develop. There is a reason that we like to use our cell phones. People prefer to talk.”

Actually it’s not an issue of communicating on the cell phone using sign language. 3G technology has been available since early 2000. You can do videoconferencing using your cell phones. The problems faced by this technology centers on its speed, the high price of the handset and most importantly, the connection cost.

In last year’s tech article, my country might hinder a 3G roll out because of low usage. According to National Telecommunications Commission statistics, there are now 57,344,815 mobile phone users in the Philippines but declined to give figures on the number of 3G users. High prices of 3G handsets could be one of the main reasons behind the technology’s slow take up.

I remember when we went to Korea last August, I saw many deaf people there that have been accustomed to videoconferencing using their cell phones. They were fortunate that their government subsidize 75% of their 3G costs. Some of them even acquired their handsets for free!

Major innovations from the cell phone worth noting are:

  • They solved the battery life problem by writing software smart enough to vary the frames per second based on whether the user is signing or watching the other person sign.
  • Because sign language requires more fluid motion capture, researchers had to make video compression software that could deliver video at about 10 frames per second.
  • It must also had to work within the standard wireless 2G network.
  • They learned that deaf people often use only one hand to sign, depending on the situation, and that they’re very good at adapting as needed. I’m not sure about BSL which uses both hands in fingerspelling. Fortunately, our FSL can be used on one hand.
  • Their research found that when two people are talking to each other, they spend almost the entire time focused on the other person’s face. Facial expressions are really important in sign language because they supplement the signs and provide a lot of information. They concluded that their cell phone video would have to be clearest in the face and hands, while they could spare some detail in the torso and in the background. The also honed in on the best areas to focus in their video.

If the cell phone they created would prove to be viable, then this is another exciting technology that deaf people would certainly look forward to since the invention of text messaging. 🙂

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