For many, video conferencing is a luxury. But for the nearly two million deaf Americans who speak American Sign Language, it's the only way they can communicate in their native language.
The University of Washington is working on a device that would be able to transmit American Sign Language over U.S. cellular networks using a relatively narrow bandwidth.
The MobileASL team has been working to find a way to transmit compressed video signals for sign language without slowing down cellular phone use. By focusing on the image quality around the face and hands, the project's engineers have brought the data rate down to just 30KBps while still delivering intelligible sign language. In addition, they've developed motion-sensor technology that can sense whether a person is signing - which will help conserve cell phone battery life.
Currently, most deaf Americans communicate over long distances via e-mail or text message, and UW's research indicates that many are receptive to the idea of MobileASL. Even so, the technology could be a long way from reaching consumer cell phones.
"We know these phones work in a lab setting, but conditions are different in people's everyday lives," said project leader Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering at UW. "The field study is an important step toward putting this technology into practice."
In countries like Japan and Sweden, which have higher cell phone bandwidth, sign language communication via cell phone video conferencing is already in use.