Sign language is one of the most difficult languages to learn that takes years to understand and grasp. It doesn’t just consist of using the hands, but includes using facial expressions and body movement. The common misconception that most people have about sign language is that it is universal, when in fact there are over 271 identified unique sign languages and interpretations in the world (Hamrick, S., Jacobi, L., Oberholtzer, P., & Henry, E.). With numerous forms of sign language, there are many challenges that the deaf community faces. One of them is the lack of sign language interpreters.
To tackle this global issue and support the deaf community, a group of engineering students from the University of Antwerp, Belgium teamed up to build a 3D printed robot that can translate text into sign language. The project is called ASLAN (Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node) and is being sponsored by the European Institute for Otorhinolaryngology. The idea to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf community began in 2014, when master’s students Guy Fierens, Stijin Huys, and Jasper Slaets noticed the lack of support for the deaf community in Belgium. They found that there was a shortage of interpreters that were offered and wanted to help them out. With their skills in robotics and 3D printing, the students figured they’d combine the two to create something useful.
From there they gained the help of an otorhinolaryngology doctor and Erwin Smet (robotics teacher) to assist with the design and functionality of the arm. Three years later, they produced the first 3D printed robotic arm that converts text into sign language. It also uses finger spelling and counting. The arm consists of 25 3D printed parts, 16 servo motors, three motor controllers, an Arduino Due (a microcontroller board), and other components to assemble it. It took over 10 hours to complete and assemble (Wilson, 2017).
The arm wasn’t meant to replace human sign language translators, but to provide an alternative to when there isn’t one available. The students have started on creating a two-arm system as well as including a design that uses facial expressions. This project is a low-cost alternative that is currently the best solution to the lack of interpreters that are available.
As they continue to further refine the ASLAN project, this form of interpretation will help thousands and even millions in classrooms, courtrooms, concerts, or theaters around the world. Once they have tested, enhance the mechanical functions and software for the robot all the designs will be an open source for everyone to use (Wilson, 2017). This won’t just bridge the gap between the hearing and the deaf community within Belgium, but possibly those from around the world.
Hamrick, S., Jacobi, L., Oberholtzer, P., & Henry, E. (n.d.). LibGuides. Sign Language. Sign languages of the world by name. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://libguides.gallaudet.edu/content.php?pid=114804&sid=991940. Wilson, G. F. (2017, September 26). This 3D Printed Humanoid Robot is Learning Sign Language to Support the Deaf Community. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from http://www.core77.com/projects/68462/This-3D-Printed-Humanoid-Robot-is-Learning-Sign-Language-to-Support-the-Deaf-Community.
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