Students develop aids for deaf and absent-minded

March 23, 2006, vol. 35, no. 6
By Barry Shell



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A glove that translates American sign language into speech and text and a smart tote bag that reminds you to take your car keys are just two of the inventions showcased at SFU's high-tech employer event on March 23.

The glove is the fourth year project of engineering science students Dave Brayden, Kjell Eggen, Ganesh and Phoenix Yuan. A high school buddy had told Ganesh that a company making virtual reality gloves for computer games was going out of business. "Thousands of these gloves were available on eBay.ca for only $50, tax and shipping included," says Ganesh. He mentioned it to the team and they decided to make a product called Voiceture that would use the glove to give voice to sign language gestures. Brayden's cousin works with deaf people and the mother of Eggen's girlfriend edits a newsletter for a B.C. deaf society.

Their teacher, engineering science professor Andrew Rawicz, acted as mock investor in their company, FivePoint Technologies.

It turned out to be a very hard problem because sign language uses gestures for words, entire phrases, or single English letters. How do you decide which is which? Computing science professor and linguistic expert Anoop Sarkar advised the students to focus only on one thing, so they chose letters.

Even that was hard. When generating the letter "o" the hand naturally passes through the shape for the letter "c". Some letters such as "s" and "t" generate the same output from the glove, so the engineers modified the device. "Phoenix did the hardware, Kjell pulled the data, Dave converted it to text, and I created the interface to display words on the screen," says Ganesh. With only four months and full course loads or coop woorkterms the students did not finish the voice part of the project. "It was a real challenge, but we took the first step to solving it," says Brayden.

The group will release all their computer code and circuitry as open source with the hope that others will make the talking glove a reality.

Ganesh adds, "We learned a lot more than technology from this project: business plans, marketing strategy, team dynamics and project documentation."

The Ladybag, a fabric totebag, uses radio frequency identification tags, a tag reader and a light emitting diode (LED) screen to detect whether any pre-determined items are missing from the bag.

"As each item is put in, the corresponding LED pattern shuts off," explains Lillian Tam, one of six members of Team Ladybags. "When no LEDs are shining, everything is in the bag."

It can also detect and display its owner's emotions on the LED screen. Team member Huma Zaidi says the bag has 31 different emoticons that can light up depending on how an owner interacts with the bag. "If you fiddle with the bag, the worried look (emoticon) will show up on the front of the bag. If you hug it, a happy emoticon will light up."

The six undergraduate students designed the bag out of their own frustration at forgetting things. "This is aimed at busy professional women who need to have their laptop and their cell phone, etcetera with them at all times," says Zaidi.

Other projects to be showcased at the event include Equilibra, a sensory balance assistance device that sends auditory and vibratory signals to those with human balance disorder (which affects nearly 50,000 Canadians) to help maintain balance and prevent potential falls.

Hydra, the octophonic guitar pickup, can be built into any guitar as a means for simple and inexpensive guitar recording, giving musicians greater flexibility and control over their sound.

It won the gold medal for innovative design at the 2006 Western engineering competition.

"The high-tech event is like a reverse career fair. Employers come to see the students," says Gwen Litchfield, co-op coordinator in engineering science.

Invited B.C. technology leaders discover the innovative projects being developed by SFU computing, engineering and interactive arts and technology undergraduate students.

The event on March 23 runs from 4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. in the applied sciences atrium at the Burnaby campus. For information visit www.sfu.ca/coop/cscoop/openhouse/.

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