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New smartwatch technology by UofC students breaks down barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing people

University of Calgary students presented new software sponsored by Garmin which translates American Sign Language (ASL) into English.

On Tuesday, April 4, 2023, The Schulich School of Engineering presented its annual Engineering Design Fair, where hundreds of students presented final projects they’ve been working on.

Electrical engineering students Omar Erak, Dillon Sahadevan, Ranbir Briar and Omar Radwan developed a program that translates ASL into English for people who don’t know to sign.

“Many people–especially deaf people –find it difficult to communicate with people who don’t understand sign language, so we’re trying to ease the communication between them,” said Erak.

According to The Calgary Association of the Deaf (CAD), an estimated 36,000 individuals living in Alberta are deaf, including indigenous peoples, children, adults and seniors. 

Around 50 per cent of the deaf community is located in southern Alberta.

The objective of the Wrist-Based Sign Language & Communication project is to ease communication between people who don’t speak the same language (ASL and English) in real-time while reducing the unnatural feel, said the team.

The wrist piece also takes care of privacy concerns its potential users may have since all the data received by the wearable piece stays protected inside the device. 

As Erak said, the Garmin smartwatch functions on a low-power setting and doesn’t need to be connected to the internet, giving users the possibility to use it anytime, anywhere.

How does it work?

The device is completely wrist-based like a regular smartwatch, it also comes with an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), which reports the hand’s specific angles, movements, and force.

“On our device, there is an IMU which basically collects rotational data and acceleration data. Then, there’s a tiny machine learning model that’s running on our device and it uses that data [IMU] and classifies it into different [English] words,” Erak said.

Achieved by the team, the smartwatch has a 97% accuracy. Once the classification and translation occur, the information is then transmitted to the receiving person’s Garmin in full English. 

Beyond launching the smartwatch into the market, Erak said the program the team developed could work on all watches – since all smartwatches possess the pieces this wearable requires to function.

“I think the very nice thing is it would fit really well with any smartwatch because all smartwatches come with the required hardware, so the IMU and the MCU. So realistically, we wouldn’t even need our full enclosure. We could just export all our code and like software onto existing watches, and they would be easy to go,” said Erak.

Projects make an impact on people

Dr. Anders Nygren, Vice-Dean of the Schulich School of Engineering, said many of these projects have a tremendous impact on people.

“Many of these projects will have a tremendous impact on the community. Whether it’s retrofitting a gas-powered ATV into an electric one to serve Canada’s northern communities, developing a Fitbit-like device for monitoring the health of a horse or capturing rainwater off skyscrapers to help become more environmentally conscious, the possibilities are endless as our students have a passion to change our world for the better,” Nygren said.

This is an opportunity for students to get see an idea consummate in a final product, hands-on experience and a feel of what the rest of their journeys in engineering will look like.

“Engineers touch every aspect of our lives, from the technology we use every day to the streets we drive and walk to the energy we consume. We hope they are able to harness that excitement from events like today and turn it into the change they want to make the world a better place,” he said.

The hope for students is for them to find something they’re passionate about in the engineering world.

“They all want to make a difference in the world, and no matter how big or small the idea is, we want them to chase their dreams.”