Helping deaf people break the loud silence

Guest writer: Sebastian Hall, Intermedia intern

I came into Intermedia fresh out of University with a creative degree, but I never thought I would be combining my degree with a project to heavily improve people’s lives.

Being Swedish myself, I know a little about language barriers but I never really comprehended how isolating deafness might be.

When Mark told me about Signly and showed it to me, I got super excited. From previous work in Virtual Reality I could see the potential in this Augmented Reality app which allows people to use their phone to see things in the real world via their phone screen, almost like magic! Having an interpreter in your pocket to guide you through exhibitions isn’t just very cool, it is extremely useful.

We were going to rebuild this app from the ground to make it work smoothly and increase the user base in the deaf community.

In the beginning

Before starting this project, I did not know much about deafness, mainly because there is a lack of information about what it means to be deaf today. It’s not something that you can ‘see’. The experience of developing the app and getting a chance to work with deaf people has really opened my eyes on something that I think many of us have stereotypical ideas about.

Many people have said “it seems really cool”, but only grasped the full potential and functionality when they saw the finished app. Learning that some deaf people only have about 25% of a hearing persons vocabulary really struck me as interesting and made me understand the need of an app like this and for more public awareness about deafness.

I can’t even begin to understand how isolating it must be to not being able to completely follow what is going on around you. Just watching films and TV shows without a translator can seem useless and simple things as travel becomes a project. How do you know which platform your train are approaching on after a last minute change without hearing the tannoy announcement? Of course there are things to guide you, but everything becomes that much more complex.
Developing Signly

Developing an app is always a bigger process than you first think – “throwing some code together and get the functionality in there can’t be that hard?” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Having guidelines for the visuals of the app is merely scratches the surface. Figuring out how people will use the app is hard. We can guess and hope that people will use it as we intend, but we won’t be there to show them. Will the app be easy to use for everyone? How do you tell users to click buttons or find specific things without having to give a instructions book with the app? Will people realise that they have to point the camera at the markers and that they can pause the video if they want to?

Also working with augmented reality presented challenges we couldn’t foresee. How big do you make the interpreter display and will the signposts work? Testing shapes and symbols for the camera to find and what worked and what didn’t had us pulling our hair, but once figured out it was cause for celebration.

How to visually explain things in the app was debated in the office. Testing over and over to reach something that we are pleased with has been a long process, but worth it! Minimising the amount of text and focusing on the signing instead has been a real challenge, I didn’t even know any sign language when starting on the project! This whole process has been an learning experience from day one, both from a technical perspective as well as on a personal level from understanding the users and their needs.

Working with deaf people

Understanding that sign language can be quite personal and not just a word for word translation of spoken English, was something we had to learn the hard way whilst working on scripts for each of the videos in the app. We could write down a few paragraphs and had a rough idea how long the videos would end up being. However, after translation they could increase or decrease a lot due to having to explain certain words or specify the meaning of words that had multiple meanings.

Meeting our partners on filming day was so much fun! Working to make sure the deaf person understood the directions from the cameraman as well for us to understand them were the cause of much laughter. Just making sure that we had markers down for the signer to stand on and making sure he could read the script from it were cause of many retakes.

By the end we had some really good material, even though we were exhausted I had learned a bunch of sign language and got a deeper understanding of what it means to be deaf. Even just being hard of hearing can be a challenge in everyday life. Hearing is such an important sense for us – just try walking around in a busy place with earphones and you will miss tannoy announcements and simple things like shopping becomes a struggle.

Why use Signly

Augmented Reality allows Signly to reach out to deaf people and inform about what is going on around them without using big screens or having to worry about having a interpreter present at all times. Instead having them scanning the signposts and seeing the videos discreetly and effectively can help include information which otherwise might have been missed.

We have made versions of this app for different clients which really shows the potential of this technology and we are thrilled to aid deaf people with this tool to make everyday easier in ways that we can. Just because you are missing or having lower hearing shouldn’t mean that you are missing out on important information or experiences! You can visit the Roald Dahl museum to see a small bit of its potential already! We hope to open up a new way to be a part of what’s going on without worrying about missing out vital bits. Most people today got access to a smart phone which means no hassle and best of all – the app are completely free!

 

Download the Signly Network Rail app from Google Play or Apple app store for free and test it on some of the signposts here to experience it for yourself!