Why there is no “Google Gesture” sign-to-speech translator

Aside from the irresponsible journalism that propagated this story in the first place, the basis for the concept is fundamentally flawed. There cannot be such thing as a wristband a signer can wear that will translate their signed language into spoken language; why? Because signed language is not just on the hands! Signed language is on the face and the body as well. The grammar of signed language is made through eyebrow, mouth, cheek, and even nose movements. Signed language is made with head nods and shakes, head and body tilts, and even shoulder shrugs. Anyone who ever took an introductory course in ASL should know this.

There is one other important flaw in the concept of a gesture-to-speech translation machine, and that is the notion that there is one “sign language.” No, folks, “sign language” is not universal! No sir, no ma’am. Even if Google were able to take input from a human interface device located on a signer’s body–even if that included all the points on the face and body necessary to read signed language–Google would have to add hundreds of signed languages into their Google Translate engine. Language is culture-bound, just as gesture is culture-bound. I’d like to see how this supposed “Google Gesture” would translate the thumbs up gesture, which can mean something like “up yours” in countries other than the United States.

American Sign Language (note that the A in ASL stands for American; i.e., not universal) is a much richer and more complex language than people give it credit for; in fact, so are all the signed languages in the world. Until enough people learn to appreciate the sophistication, complexity, and diversity of signed languages, we will continue to swallow false stories like this hook, line, and sinker.

Computerized interpretation of vague language for Web searches

It’s great to see how people other than “interpreters” are implementing the “interpretation” of vague language for practical applications! Panos Alexopoulos, in his presentation Vagueness in Semantic Information Management, discusses how Internet engineers can design databases with search capabilities that can “interpret” what consumers mean when they say they are looking for, say, a “Big, modern restaurant.” (How many square feet is big? What year range or architectural and interior design qualifies as modern?) He discusses the challenge of developing algorithms that can translate vague search terms into specific results. Very interesting!

Ever forget an assignment? Make it less likely with automatic agenda emails.

I hate to admit it, but there have been those mortifying times when I’ve forgotten I had a job to get to. It’s easy to follow a schedule when it’s the same every day, but when you’re a community interpreter and your schedule changes every day, you might need a little help.

Lately, some of the agencies I work for have started sending out automatic agenda reminders via email, such as “Here is your schedule for this week” or “Here is your schedule today.” These reminder emails are very helpful — so helpful I was about to ask an agency who doesn’t send them to send them. I rethought that, though, because I had forgotten a job with them that week and I didn’t want it to come across as, “Well, it would help if you sent me a reminder.” So I did some searching and found that I could set up my own email reminders in my Google calendar. Here’s how:

In your Google calendar, go to Settings. Currently the way to do this is to click on the gear icon in the top right corner of the page. When in Settings, click the Calendars tab from the tabs toward the top left of the page (where you see General, Calendars, Mobile Setup, Labs). For your work calendar, look for the Notifications heading just right of the center of the Calendar line (where you see CALENDAR, SHOW IN LIST, NOTIFICATIONS, SHARING). Follow the Notifications link for your work calendar. Scroll to the bottom of the page where it says, “Daily agenda: Receive an email with your agenda every day at 5am in your current time zone.” Check the box next to Email and/or SMS, and you’re done! You will now get your very own agenda reminders at the crack of dawn.

Go forth and serve thy Deaf and hearing consumers!

P.S. I know not everyone uses Gmail or Google Apps, but maybe the calendaring program you use does this too. If not, maybe you should get with a program that does.

First workshop on Google+ Hangout a success

Online participant’s view of Fostering Independence workshop conducted in a Google+ Hangout

Learning from colleagues via Daniel Greene’s workshop… all from the comfort of my home while my daughter naps. Amazing technology!

–online participant


Yesterday, I included online participants in one of my workshops for the first time. I had used the technology in my teaching practicum last quarter in grad school, but this was the first time I used a Google+ Hangout to give a three-hour workshop as a solo presenter. We had a small turnout for this one, including two participants online and three participants on site. The two online participants connected separately, I had my own connection, and the three onsite participants had two laptops between them, so we had a total of five video connections. A Hangout will hold ten video connections, so we could have had five more Google+ Hangout participants — six more if we had only used one connection for all the onsite participants. And of course we could have had more onsite participants.


I advertised the Google+ Hangout on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and my blog two days before the event. I had online participants register with the site coordinator and pay me directly via PayPal. I had the participants check to see that they had Google+ accounts and send me their Gmail addresses so I could find them on Google+ and add them to a Circle. The site coordinator emailed my handouts and slides to the online participants as PDFs so they could follow along on their screen or print them as they saw fit. She also got the participants’ details so she could process CEUs. The onsite participants had my handouts printed, and I also showed my slideshow on the screen behind me.  I conducted the workshop in English, and in addition to using the Hangout for talking, I used the Hangout YouTube app to show a video to the participants. I could have used the Slideshare app to share my slides as well, but I wanted to keep it simple and not “tempt fate” by overloading the system. I told my students I would start a new Hangout and invite them if we all got disconnected; that avoids the problem of people inviting each other and refusing each other’s invitations because each one wants the other to join the Hangout they started.


I was able to harness the technology to extend my teaching, and the students/participants gave me excellent scores and comments on the evaluations. I had hoped for some interpreters of languages other than ASL and English, but as it turned out, we were all ASL/English interpreters. We did experience some packet loss or “freezing video” a couple of times, and the online participants had to reconnect once or twice, but thankfully we never lost the Hangout altogether. We onsite people tended to look at the laptops in front of us more than each other, so it was a bit like we were all online participants. I shared my observation and suggested with some levity those of us in the room “might look at each other once in a while.” We did balance looking at the screens with looking at each other so that all participants felt included.


All-in-all, it was a great experience for all of us. The online/onsite hybrid was a fascinating dynamic with us onsite looking at laptops in front of us, yet I was glad  I had participants in front of me onsite as well as online. I’m glad I didn’t cancel the workshop due to low registration, and even though extending the workshop online only brought two extra participants, the small number was cozy and the interaction was rich. It was worth it for what we were all able to learn from each other about getting out of the way and fostering independence.