What if you spoke a different language than your friends and family? For many deaf people who communicate through sign language, this is an everyday reality. The people at MotionSavvy are breaking down these barriers by combining Leap Motion technology with language translation software. Being deaf themselves, they all have a personal stake in building a more expressive future.
As MotionSavvy’s CTO, Alexandr Opalka handles the software and programming behind the project. Together with Wade Kellard, Ryan Hait-Campbell, and Jordan Stemper, he envisions a future where deaf people have quick communication at their fingertips – everywhere.
About 90 percent of the deaf population was born into hearing families, who don’t know anything about how to raise a deaf child. I am one of those – my parents did their best and provided me with all the tools I needed. But in a lot of cases, parents and children have trouble communicating, and this can lead to tremendous problems.
Not just that – once they try to enter the workforce, deaf people still face problems communicating with their peers. This creates just another barrier for them in terms of personal and career growth. We’re trying to solve all of that by providing a device that can allow them to freely communicate, whenever they want, in their native language.
While some people also use handwritten notes to express their thoughts, this can feel alienating. American Sign Language (ASL) is an expressive language, and maintaining eye contact (rather than gazing at a pad of paper) is an important element of everyday communication. Plus, while some people think that ASL is just a reflection of spoken English, it actually has its own grammatical structure. This makes it a unique form of expression – a native language in its own right.
Right now, MotionSavvy’s software can accurately track the full alphabet, numbers, and some basic phrases. Their next step is developing quicker ways to add new words into the system – then bringing expert signers on board to train their ever-growing dictionary. One of the team’s biggest challenges is figuring out how to register the unique nuances of ASL. Different speeds or emphasis placed on the same sign can mean different things – for instance, if a person wants to sign that something is “very fast,” they will make the sign for “fast” more quickly than normal.
Moving beyond these barriers, MotionSavvy wants to take their technology global. There’s been tremendous interest from people around the world asking when the system will be available. All this in the few months since the team left their studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology to work with the LEAP.AXLR8R:
I can honestly say that I am learning a lot more here then I did when I was a student. It's been exhilarating. We have fantastic mentors and support – not only from the program but from the Leap Motion engineering team, who stop by to help us when we have problems. The time has flown by and the end of the program (and demo day!) is fast approaching.