Microsoft uses Kinect to interpret sign language from deaf people

The technology can also help non-deaf users translate spoken words into sign language

Microsoft's Kinect technology, already adept at reading hand and body movements, is incorporating sign language into its motion-sensing vocabulary as part of a new research project meant to help the deaf.

Developers at Microsoft Research have been using the Xbox 360 gaming peripheral to read sign language from deaf users, and translate it into spoken text. On Wednesday, they showed off some of the results. "Thanks Microsoft for turning my dream into a reality," gestured Yin Dandan, a deaf student, who demonstrated the Kinect translator.

The technology can not only turn sign language into words spoken by a computer, but also do the reverse. A non-deaf user can speak or type words into the Kinect translator. The system will then motion the words in sign language using a virtual avatar shown on a display. (A video of the translator can be found here).

Microsoft Research demonstrated the technology as it celebrated the 15th year of its Asia division. Language translation has been among one of its focuses and already researchers there have developed software that can artificially replicate a person's voice, and have it speak other languages, including Chinese.

At the same time, the company has been promoting the use of Kinect among software developers in China, said Wu Guobin, a Microsoft Research program manager. The gadget has proven to be an ideal motion-sensing device for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which has long been researching sign language recognition technology.

Researchers have previously tried to use cameras, and even "digital gloves", to capture sign language gestures. But these devices are expensive, with the cameras costing between 10,000 yuan ($1,632) and 30,000 yuan, Wu said. In contrast, the Kinect is an affordable alternative, at only 1,000 yuan, he added.

Starting in February 2012, Microsoft Research began collaboration on the project with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Beijing Union University. After about 18 months of development, the Kinect translator can now recognize 370 of the most popular words in Chinese Sign Language, and American Sign Language

The research team hopes to collaborate with more experts in the field and is also surveying the deaf to find the best use cases for the Kinect translator.

It's thought that the system could help deaf users make presentations to non-sign language speaking crowds. Deaf users working at an information kiosk could also more easily communicate with visitors who need help.

It is not known when the technology will arrive in the market, Wu said. Microsoft is still working on improving the language recognition technology, and needs to expand the vocabulary of sign language the system recognizes.

"I think it's been great. In a year and half, we have already developed the system prototype," Wu said. "The results have been published in key conferences, and other researchers have said the results are very good."

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