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computer sign language
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EMBARGOED FOR RELEASE: 24 FEBRUARY 1999 AT 14:00:00 ET US
Contact: Claire Bowles
A New Kind Of Sign Language Could Liberate Us From Our Desks
IF YOU see someone making strange twitching movements with a gloved
hand, don't worry about their mental health. They are probably
writing a blockbuster novel on their wearable computer.
There are a number of computers designed for use on the move. But
without a normal keyboard, getting data into these "wearables" is a
problem. The answer could be a new one-handed sign language,
according to its inventor at Stanford University in California.
Vaughan Pratt, who leads the research on wearable computers at
Stanford, has developed a sign language that he calls thumbcode. By
touching your thumb against the tip, middle or base of each finger,
and by grouping your fingers together in different ways, the
language gives 96 different combinations, which represent upper and
lowercase letters, numbers and other characters.
Thumbcode is said to be device independent, meaning that the hand
positions are the same whatever kind of device is reading them.
Pratt is developing a glove which contains sensors that can detect
each of the positions. This means you could write documents and
e-mails as you walk down a street, for example. But the language
could also be used with normal computers. Here there would be no
need to use a glove, he says. A video camera and image recognition
software could work out what characters your fingers are forming.
"The training time is a lot less than for learning Morse code.
Since it's easy to learn the characters, that really overcomes the
biggest obstacle. You can expect to get about 30 words per minute,"
says Pratt. That compares favourably to the 60 words per minute
most touch typists achieve.
Once people learn to use a gloved system, they like it, says Bob
Rosenberg, who studied gloved data input devices while at
University College London. "People like the fact that they can type
in a variety of positions," he says.
One-handed input devices based on typing date back to the creation
of the computer mouse, when it was thought that people might type
with one hand and control the mouse with the other. That didn't
happen, but several "chording keyboards"-on which characters are
formed by pressing combinations of keys, just like musical
chords-have been developed. However, these have caught on only in
specialised wearable computing applications, such as underwater
(see Technology, 30 October 1993, p 20) or military systems.
Pratt says he is exploring other possibilities as well, including
handwriting and voice recognition programs. But Pratt says both
technologies are slow and prone to errors, and need a lot of
improvement. IBM has already introduced a wearable computer that
uses a voice recognition system. And 3Com's PalmPilot, a popular
handheld organiser, uses a handwriting recognition program based on
Author: Kurt Kleiner
New Scientist issue 27 Feb 99
US CONTACT - Barbara Thurlow, New Scientist Washington office:
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