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U of C students develop a smartwatch technology to help individuals who are hearing impaired

By Devinya Nakandala, August 9 2023—

Four electrical engineering students from the University of Calgary have successfully developed a smartwatch software that translates American Sign Language (ASL) into English. This technology, which is sponsored by Garmin, was founded by Omar Erak, Dillon Sahadevan, Ranbir Briar and Omar Radwan.  

According to Statistics Canada about 3.6 per cent of the population, equating to approximately 1.3 million Canadians, are sign language users. Alberta alone consists of 36,000 individuals who are hearing impaired. 

“We really wanted to help in breaking down the barrier in communication for people who can’t speak or hear properly,” said Erak during an interview with the Gauntlet.

Sign language is heavily dependent on motion and most smartwatches are equipped with the motion sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes needed to track your movements. According to Erak, the new device uses an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) which uses data collected from these inbuilt sensors to track the movements of your hand. Afterwards, this data is fed into a machine-learning model that classifies the data into distinct English words. 

“We were mainly looking for something that interests us from a technical point of view,” said Erak. “The team was looking for something which was machine learning as well as embedded in software development. We also wanted to create a project that was meaningful and can help people.”

The software has a 97 per cent accuracy in translating Sign Language into English and the data collected is kept private. For convenience, it also doesn’t require internet connectivity.

Introducing such technology to the market requires an immense amount of data from a larger number of individuals. The team collected data from different volunteers and trained the prototype to classify different words. Having a larger amount of data would make sure that there are enough words for people to communicate with.

Erak noted that there are many logistical challenges when acquiring large amounts of data. However, the team is hopeful that they will meet these challenges and aims to introduce this technology to the market for daily use.

“The sponsoring company owns the rights to the project, but they were okay with expanding it if we wanted to. But it would require a lot of work and support from different bodies to collect enough data,” said Erak. 

More information about the Garmin smartwatch can be found online.

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