Home Better Than FaceTime? Researchers Test New Mobile Technology for Deaf

Better Than FaceTime? Researchers Test New Mobile Technology for Deaf

Engineers at the University of Washington are developing the first mobile technology able to transmit American Sign Language (ASL) over cellular networks. The software called MobileASL currently runs on phones imported from Europe while being tested, but it could be configured to run on any device in the near future.

If you’re wondering how the engineers are claiming “first” when video conferencing solutions, most notably Apple’s FaceTime and mobile video applications like Fring, already provide face-to-face communications ideal for signing, the difference is in the technology behind mobileASL itself.

MobileASL Could Work on Any Phone Over 3G

The UW team, led by Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical engineering, claim that Apple’s FaceTime uses 10 times the bandwidth of MobileASL. FaceTime is also currently limited to Wi-Fi, although Apple may eventually open it up to run over 3G, assuming network operators could manage the overhead. Fring works over both Wi-Fi and 3G, but is limited to various smartphones like the iPhone, phones built with Google’s Android mobile OS and certain Nokia devices.

MobileASL, on the other hand, could be integrated into any device that has a video camera on the same side of the phone as the screen.

It also increases the video quality around the face and hands while optimizing the compressed video signals specifically for sign language. The software even detects whether a person is signing or not in order to extend the phone’s battery life during use.

Jessica Tran, a doctoral student in electrical engineering who is running the field study, is experimenting with different compression systems to further extend the battery life of phones under heavy video use. Another researcher, engineering doctoral student Jaehong Chon, made MobileASL compatible with H.264, an industry standard for video compression.

The field test underway now, with students in the UW Summer Academy for Advancing Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Computing, is the first of its kind. “This is the first study of how deaf people in the United States use mobile video phones,” Riskin said.

Most of the study participants say that email or texting are currently their preferred methods of communication. This MobileASL technology may eventually change that.

FaceTime Still a Good Alternative for Now

However, it’s not alone in its goal of making smartphones more useful to people with disabilities. Video Relay Services company ZVRSrecently announced its launch of a mobile video relay service that works with Apple’s FaceTime to enable single-tap, face-to-face video interpreting. The service was released to the public on July 26, the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The iPhone-only FaceTime-enabled service works by connecting those in need to a video interpreter by way of a special phone number.

But while ZVRS’s service only works on the iPhone 4, mobileASL technology could potentially work on any phone. And that, in many ways, makes it a first.

Image credits: University of Washington, ZVRS, Apple

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.