A robotic hand that can translate words into sign language gestures for deaf people has been created by scientists.
Named Project Aslan, the 3D-printed hand costs as little as £400 ($560) to make and interprets both written text and spoken words.
The device communicates through ‘fingerspelling’, a type of sign language where words are spelled out letter-by-letter through separate gestures on a single hand.
The robot, which will be ready in five years, could one day be carried around in a rucksack, scientists say.
It could help some of the 70 million worldwide who are deaf or hard of hearing to communicate with people who don’t know sign language.
A prototype device works by translating text or speech through a computer, though it is hoped the final product will be portable for translations on-the-move.
The Belgian team behind the technology says the ultimate goal is to build a two-armed robot with an expressive face to convey the full complexity of the languages.
Created at the University of Antwerp, Aslan (Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node) could even be used to help teach people sign language, researchers said.
Team leader and University of Antwerp robotics expert Erwin Smet said: ‘This will change life for the deaf community.
‘What we have seen in real situations is that there is a real gap and barrier between the deaf community and the real world – Aslan can reduce that barrier.
‘The amount of hours of help that the deaf community can get via translators etc is really limited.
‘I see Aslan as something being put in deaf people’s backpacks – they can carry it with them, to lectures, to anywhere – there is a need for this.’
So far the team has created a single prototype, which works by connecting to a computer that users can send text or voice messages to via a local network.
‘A deaf person who needs to appear in court, a deaf person following a lesson in a classroom somewhere,’ Mr Smet told New Atlas last year.
‘These are all circumstances where a deaf person needs a sign language interpreter, but where often such an interpreter is not readily available. This is where a low-cost option like Aslan can offer a solution.’
Aslan is significantly cheaper than similar technologies because it is mostly 3D-printed, which drives down production costs.
Twenty-five printed plastic parts are moved by 16 motors, three motor controllers, a microcomputer and a few other electronic components.
The plastic segments reportedly take 139 hours to print, while final assembly of the device takes a further ten.
The technology can be recreated by anybody with a basic 3D printer, making it easily accessible worldwide.
Mr Smet said: ‘We started some years ago, with the idea that students who are not able to hear, could use some help in every day life to communicate.
‘It should be something that is reliable, cheap, and gives you the opportunity to program it with different languages.
‘We started with small steps – with just one hand, and then the wrist, and then the elbow too.’
Researchers began with characters like individual letters in the alphabet.
‘Then we looked at how we could translate the humans hand simply into mechanics’, Mr Smet said.
‘We didn’t need every single joint in the hand, so we went for 16 joints in total – all the research was done by masters students, to give them the opportunity to learn and design at the same time.
‘This is a low cost robot arm, that, when fully developed, can change the lives of all people who use it.’