A Grand Junction, Colo., high school senior is getting international acclaim for inventing a computerized glove that translates sign language gestures into writing. Educators say the device could hold great potential for integrating hearing-disabled students into mainstream classes.
Ryan Patterson, 17, won top honors and a $100,000 scholarship in the Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition held Dec. 3 in Washington, D.C.
In May, the device earned him $216,000 in cash and scholarships at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He also received a trip to Sweden to meet Nobel Prize winners later this month.
Patterson’s invention, which is already patented, quickly translates the American Sign Language alphabet into writing on a computer screen. The device, called “the Sign Language Translator,” consists of a modified golf glove and translator display unit.
His project uses a tiny computer mounted on a standard golf glove to translate the hand movements of sign language into characters that appear almost simultaneously onto an electronic screen the size of a cell phone. A tiny circuit board on the back of the glove digitizes information from 10 sensors on the wrist and fingers and transmits it to a tiny, one-line screen that can be tucked into a pocket or purse.
The result is a near-fluid conversation between those who understand and use sign language and those who do not.
In a Dec. 4 interview on National Public Radio (NPR), Patterson explained the practicality of his invention.
“Say … you can’t speak, but you use sign language, and you go to the store and you need to ask a question. You can simply show the person the display [screen] and then sign, rather than trying to ask them by finding paper, pencil, or writing it or pointing,” he said.
Patterson conceived of the device last fall while watching a teen use sign language to tell an adult translator what to order for her at a fast-food restaurant. He felt sorry for any teen who would always need an adult translator tagging along and knew he could devise an electronic solution.
“Not only is Mr. Patterson’s project groundbreaking, it is already patented. You wouldn’t ask more from a small engineering start-up company,” said Dr. George D. Nelson, lead judge in the Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition and project director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Mr. Patterson works at a professional engineering level. He understood at every stage of his research just what he was trying to doand completely pulled it off.”
“I thought through the process carefully and then experimented a lot with algorithms to translate the sign language,” Patterson said. “So it was just a lot of time and maybe some luck in there.”
Educators say his invention soon might serve a useful purpose in schools.
According to Chris Dede, professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “If this device is reliable and inexpensive, it offers a powerful interface for enabling learners who use sign language as a primary medium of communication to interact through written language, both in face-to-face settings and online.”
“I think this device will help hearing-impaired students keep up with the class,” agreed Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania. “The technology seems small and natural for the end-user.”
Becker said she believes the technology could help hearing- or speech-impaired children communicate ideas to teachers and classmates who do not know sign language.
Outside of the lab, Patterson is taking college-level courses and works part-time at ThermoAutomations Systems writing embedded software and designing circuitry. Although he has not made a final decision on where he will go to college, Patterson most likely will pursue electrical engineering as a major.
In Sweden, he’ll witness the presentation of Nobel Prizes and might get the opportunity to present his project to a group of Nobel winners.
Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Governor Mifflin School District