Four Ukrainian tech whizzes won the Microsoft’s Imagine Cup 2012 this week in Syndey, Australia for their pathbreaking innovation. Calling themselves QuadSquad, they created a product called “Enable Talk”—gloves that translate sign language into spoken word, giving a voice to the 275 million people worldwide having hearing impairment.
The team beat out 75 other groups that made it to the worldwide finals in Australia where they had to present their projects in front of a group of judges. This was Microsoft’s 10th Imagine Cup and the event, which invites pitches from students. This year’s Imagine Cup’s theme was “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems”
Most of the projects focused on the environment or healthcare. But QuadSquad tackled a much more basic problem: communication. The Enable Talk gloves work by translating the gestures of the user’s hands through a text-to-talk engine connected to a smartphone.
Students on the winning Team QuadSquad — Anton Stepanov, Anton Posternikov, and Maxim Osika said, “A while ago, in the supermarket we saw a cashier having difficulties understanding a speech-impaired person and we thought how useful it would be to have a device to overcome this communication barrier. We were very surprised to find out that no such devices are available on the market. Later, our interaction with hearing-impaired athletes at our school confirmed that such a solution is needed for them to communicate more fully with the world.”
Even a Star Wars character could use these gloves because there are some seeming superpowers within.
The glove is flexible, easy to use, cheap to produce and battery operated.
The glove decodes the hand gestures and the Enable Talk smartphone app translates the data. The app is wirelessly connected through Bluetooth technology. The team uses Microsoft’s Speech and Bing APIs for text-to-speech conversion.
The sleek black gloves come packed with flex sensors, touch sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and even solar panels to keep the battery kicking.
Given the high degree of variation among sign languages, which also has regional dialects just like spoken language, this will be a welcome feature for users.
The team has built a number of prototypes and tested them with sign language-users in the Ukraine.
The Imagine Cup is hosted by Microsoft, so obviously the EnableTalk project was built on Microsoft hardware out of obligation. It's running on Windows Mobile 6.5, as Windows Phone 7 doesn't allow developers access to its Bluetooth stack. Remember "WinMo"? Microsoft would prefer you didn't, and yet something like this was created on it.
The team says the Enable Talk gloves can be created for around $75, a mere fraction of the cost of other prototypes (less sophisticated designs can cost up to $1,200).
But Enable Talk wasn’t the only innovation of the competition. The runners-up certainly deserve acknowledgement of their own: Coccolo from Japan created a software program featuring lights that “talk to each other.” The team’s creation saves energy by dimming lights when they aren’t being used. Portugal’s wi-GO, who took third place, made a shopping cart capable of following disabled customers through a grocery store.
For their efforts the Ukrainian team take home US$25,000, which they say will be used to build a “prettier” user interface and further develop the product.
You can find a full list of all the winners here. Next year’s event will take place in St. Petersburg.