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Winter 2008 Table of Contents

Signs of Hope

Video dictionary will simplify learning sign language

| From Explorations | By Caleb Daniloff

The letters A, B, C, and D in American Sign Language.

For nearly two million hearing-impaired people and their families, learning American Sign Language can be a Catch-22. ASL dictionaries are available, but because the language lacks a written form, the signs are often organized according to their nearest English translation. “You can only look up a sign in the dictionary if you already know what it means,” says Carol Neidle, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of linguistics and coordinator of BU’s Undergraduate Linguistics Program.

Neidle and Stanley Sclaroff, a professor and chair of the CAS computer science department, hope that before long it will be possible to demonstrate signs in front of a camera and let a computer look up their meaning. With a three-year $900,000 National Science Foundation grant, the two BU professors are collaborating with Vassilis Athitsos (GRS’06), an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, on computer technology that could identify a sign based on its visual properties. One aim of the project is to apply such technology to multimedia dictionaries, which would enable signers to access definitions, etymology, and examples of usage, all in ASL. They also hope to develop a way to perform Google-type searches, called “sloogle,” in, for example, recorded databases of ASL literature, lore, educational courses, video conversations, and performances.

Sclaroff and Athitsos are developing techniques to allow a computer to identify signs from video clips, an extension of Athitsos’s dissertation research on hand-pose recognition. The first step will be the establishment of a comprehensive ASL video lexicon — 3,000 to 5,000 signs. ASL users have already logged countless hours in front of a camera at BU’s National Center for Sign Language and Gesture Resources. Neidle and Sclaroff have developed a computer program called SignStream that displays videos of ASL signing from multiple angles for linguistic annotation.

Neidle says the ASL look-up-and-search capabilities have important implications for improving education for the deaf and their families. “Ninety percent of deaf children are born into hearing families,” she says. “This would allow parents to look up a sign produced by their deaf child.”

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