With technology like Google Translate, we can communicate in almost any language in the world, even if we don't know that language at all. Two people with zero words in common can use technology and hold a perfectly normal—if slightly garbled—conversation with each other. That's pretty remarkable.
But there's one group of people who are left out: deaf and hard-of-hearing people who speak sign languages. No translation program in the world can interpret for them, which makes it hard to communicate.
One group of researchers is working to change that. A team from the University of California San Diego built an electronic glove that can detect signs used in American Sign Language and translate those signs into English.
Their glove uses stretchable sensors on the backs of the fingers to track finger orientations, and an accelerometer to track hand position. Together, these sensors can tell the shape and position of the hand very accurately, enough to differentiate between all 26 letters of the ASL alphabet.
That's all the researchers have done so far, but with a glove on each hand and some updated software this technology should easily be able to translate any ASL sign. And there's another benefit to this glove design: It's really cheap to make.
The researchers built their prototype for less than $100, and if this design is ever mass-produced it's likely to become even cheaper than that. ASL speakers could soon have a way to easily communicate with those who don't understand sign language.
The researchers also believe their glove can be used in virtual reality applications. Users could more accurately control objects in virtual reality with a glove that tracks their hand motion. The researchers are also hoping to build tactile feedback into a later edition of the glove.
Virtual reality might soon become real enough for you to reach out and touch it. Literally.