Animated Translator A Research Team at DePaul Creates Paula, a Computer-Generated Heroine for the Deaf

Article excerpt

Byline: S. A. Mawhorr Daily Herald Business Writer

Graduate student Karen Alkoby, deaf since birth, walked away from a security checkpoint at the Los Angeles airport not realizing guards were shouting at her to stop.

When several agents rushed up to block her path, it became clear to Alkoby that she set off a metal detector while walking through it, triggering a minor panic among the security guards when she ignored commands.

All this happened about four years ago, long before security measures intensified after Sept. 11.

Although communication barriers between the deaf and the hearing are common, airport security checkpoints can be a particularly stressful juncture for the deaf.

Ideally, airport checkpoints would be manned by people fluent in both English and American Sign Language. But there aren't that many ASL translators out there and they are expensive to hire.

So a team of about 40 researchers at DePaul University in Chicago, where Alkoby is working on her doctorate, has spent the past four years developing animation software that translates spoken English into sign language that is viewed on a computer screen.

The program's animated character, who the team has dubbed Paula, has short brown hair much like Alkoby, who was a graduate student in computer science at the time she suggested the project.

After wrestling with the intricacies of sign language and the challenges of animating subtle hand movements and facial expressions, the team has developed a program that translates the commands typically used by airport security guards. Now those researchers, led by computer science professor Rosalee Wolf, hope to give the system away to airports.

But why would the deaf need a translator at all? Couldn't an airport security guard simply pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and jot down a note when having trouble communicating with a deaf person?

That doesn't always work, the researchers say.

For those who have been deaf since birth or who lost their hearing before learning to speak, American Sign Language often is their native tongue, Alkoby said. And American Sign Language isn't just English spelled out with the hands, as you might assume from the name.

American Sign Language is a language unto itself with sentence structure and grammar rules that would be tough for any English speaker to grasp.

In American Sign Language, verbs aren't conjugated into past, future or conditional tenses. Instead, speakers might sign words over a shoulder to indicate a past event.

Adverbs and articles just don't exist and often sentences are put together in a way that would seem backwards to English speakers.

Pronouns are used in place of nouns, as in "Me go store," instead of "I am going to the store."

For many of the deaf in the United States, English is a foreign language and trying to write messages back and forth in a tense situation might serve only to confuse communication.

"I'm constantly brushing up on my English skills," Alkoby said through an interpreter fluent in American Sign Language. …