The advent of texting finally allowed the deaf community to join the cell phone world, but only in a limited way.

(With) texting you can not really convey emotion as much as seeing the person, said Peter Michor, who has been hearing-impaired since birth.

That's why UW researchers are working on a special video app, capable of transmitting American Sign Language over US cellular networks. Unlike the more expensive 4G video phones, they wanted this app to be affordable and accessible to anyone with any kind of video-enabled cell phone. That also means some trade-offs.

Jessica Tran is a UW doctoral student in electrical engineering who has been working on the prototype.

Because we're sending out 30 kilobits per second, the video quality is lower, but we also have different algorithms that devote more pixels to the face and hands which allow for clearer video there, she said.

Face and hands are what matter most to these users. The prototype phone also frees up both hands for signing. To maximize video elements, researchers decided to eliminate one feature that won't be missed - sound.

Participants in a UW summer school computer program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students are the first to field test the new technology. They liked what they saw.

From where it is now, it's a very good prototype. In the end, I do believe that it will be a very good thing to have in the deaf and hard of hearing community so can't wait for it, said Michor.

Fellow student Adam Zaelit summed up his reaction in one word:


Researchers hope to have the sign language app on the market in a year or two.