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Hear hear for 3G

Researchers developing future phones for deaf

The next generation of mobile phones should help deaf people lead more independent lives, if a group of European scientists have their way.

Hearing-impaired people will be able to call up news, weather and sports information in sign language from a video server using 3G (third generation) phones, give commands to their phones in sign language, and access a real-time interpretation service to aid them in communicating with hearing people.

A consortium of researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and Sweden is working together on the project, called Wisdom (wireless information services for deaf people on the move).

Scientists at a German technical university plan to incorporate the sign-language recognition technology they've been developing for several years, said Britta Bauer, a research engineer at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule in Aachen.

"For hearing people, if they have their mobile phone they have speech recognition. We would like to do the same for deaf people," Bauer said. "So I could do the sign, for instance, for sports or news, and immediately the server for sports or news will appear. That's the kind or research area we have."

In laboratory conditions, the technology is already capable of understanding sentences comprising up to nine signs, with a recognition rate of 90 percent, she said. If a user makes a single-sign command to operate a menu it should follow it, she added.

Another feature in the works is a video link to a live interpretation service, she said. "If (a hearing person who doesn't understand sign language) is just sitting next to me, for instance, at a doctor's or a bank or something like that, and I would like to have an interpretation service, I call them up and they translate the sign language into speech, so I don't have to have my interpreter with me."

Communicating in sign language via video phone is much faster and easier for deaf people than the telephone text terminals currently in widespread use because sign language is quite distinct from spoken or written language, explained Mick Canavan, project officer at the University of Bristol's Centre for Deaf Studies.

Deaf people learn sign language as a first language, so standard written or spoken language is "very much a second language", he said. "It's comparable maybe to someone [who learned French in school] trying to conduct their life in French. Secondly, it's very tiresome to actually type your messages."

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