National Disabled Person’s Day on May 21, a video released by CCTV
featuring two graduate students from Beihang University and Tsinghua
University has gone viral online. Wang Nana and Huang Shuang, intent on
helping their hearing-impaired friends, invented a wearable
sign-language interpreter by transforming sign language into audible
information. The pair won first prize last month in an open design
challenge organized by the UN Development Program and tech giant Baidu.
Wang Nana started her research with a goal of helping the disabled
rather than making a fortune. Her friend, Zhang Quan, could only use
WeChat to communicate with her even when they were sitting face to face,
as Wang did not know sign language. She felt sorry for Zhang when,
surrounded by a chatting group, he could only remain silent.
At the time, Wang was a computer science student studying image-based
sign language recognition technology. However, she was too focused on
technical details to consider the portability of an interpretation
device. It was her close friend Huang Shuang who contributed the idea of
creating something wearable.
The idea for a sign language armband was inspired by a device used by
student musicians studying piano. Teachers can tell whether the muscles
in a student’s arm are properly aligned through the use of special
armbands. Wang and Huang decided to apply this technology to their
device. They put each neuromuscular signal of sign language into a
system, and then employed artificial intelligence to help the system
recognize and "translate" the signs into audible information. In this
way, people dependent on sign language to communicate can "speak"
fluently with ordinary people.