Kinect Hacked to Aid Learning American Sign Language

Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect motion capture system hacked by Georgia Tech geeks to aid learning of sign language

Didn’t I just predict this? Although, I see the merit for a computer being capable of reading American Sign Language simply for interface purposes, as a somatic and tactile language, it can be quite difficult for some people to pick up on and having a tutor (even in computer form) can be a tremendous aid.

Researchers at Georgia Tech College of Computing are working on a hack to the Microsoft Kinect that will aid people in learning ASL, removing the need for clunky gloves that detected the speed and position of the fingers and wrists. Right now, though the Kinect still suffers from a resolution that is just slightly too low to make it entirely viable, but Microsoft does seem to be planning an upgrade.

Kinect and American Sign Language, a match made in tech utopiaKinect Hacks brings us a few more details on this particular hack,

It seems so obvious: Using Kinect to help people learn American Sign Language. That’s exactly what researchers at Georgia Tech College of Computing are working on, pairing Microsoft’s oft-hacked motion sensing camera with custom software that previously required colored gloves kitted with wrist-mounted, 3-axis accelerometers. On a series of increasingly difficult tests, the software returned results with 100% accuracy, 99.98% accuracy, and 98.8% accuracy.

These promising results mean the team will be working on updates including a larger vocabulary which necessitates the need of “hand shape features.” The initial proof-of-concept demo launched with a small vocabulary that excluded them in favor of broader gestural movements with the arms and body.

This sort of hack is extremely amazing! It opens up an entire realm of expectations from devices such as the Kincect that could lead to innovations in auto-interpretation of sign language, teaching sign language, and even allowing communication with computers using sign language. The sheer versatility of this Pandora’s Box that Microsoft commissioned for us has signaled a surprising surge in innovation.

Who else out there sees a Typing of the Dead sequel arising from a strange grave and throwing the undead hordes at new American Sign Language learners  who fight off shambling zombies by finger-spelling words or gunning down ghouls by going through the motions of short phrases. Games have been seen to be excellent teachers of people and video games—along with devices like Kinect—could be the next great educators giving people goals and a reason to improve their abilities with sign language.

If there’s reason for follow up in this story, we will have to go to the deaf community and see what their reaction to the introduction of a household technology that can interpret sign language might be—especially in the advent of how this could be a brilliant teaching tool for adults as well as children.

There’s dark rumors that Microsoft has patented detection of sign language by the Kinect and thus doesn’t sanction what Georgia Tech is doing. If so, there might be a cease and desist letter in their future, although (and I cite the might of the deaf community here) they might have an uphill battle with their basic tacit approval of other hacks to their motion sensor system. The company has already seen a lot of heat for attempting to come down on homebrew hackers doing what they can with the system.