Teenage inventor brings sign-translating glove to NIDCD
May 9, 2003
Ryan Patterson visited NIH on February 15, 2002. He was interviewed by the NIH News Media Branch.
Inspiration can strike anywhere at anytime and for high schooler Ryan Patterson, inspiration struck in the unlikely setting of a fast food restaurant. Patterson was trying to think of a science project to do when he remembered an occasion when he was in the same restaurant and saw some people who were deaf who needed an interpreter to help them place their order. Inspiration--Patterson decided to try to develop an electronic method that would make it easier for people to communicate. During a recent visit to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Patterson, an 18-year-old student at Central High School in Grand Junction, Colorado, described his invention--the "Sign Language Translator."
It's a glove that you wear and then you can sign the alphabet with American sign language and it translates it to text and prints it to a screen. So that way people who can't speak can sign and print out the words that they want to say--spell them out with a glove and then it prints it to the display and the computer speaks the word. And hopefully very soon a portable display will also do the voice synthesis. My first prototype was done about nine months after I started the project. And that was in August of 2000. So since then I've continued work on it--to get the portable displays and then I'm starting to design the next revision of the glove which will include a lot more--be more portable, that type of thing.
The "Sign Language Translator" was a Grand Prize winner in the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where it was named best of category in engineering, and the first place winner in the individual category at the 2001 Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition. The glove offers a new way in which people who sign might express themselves during brief, one-sided conversations with people who don't understand sign language. And what sparked his interest in electronics?
I've always been interested in electronics I guess, so when I was as young as three I would drag around an extension cord and play around with the outlets--that type of thing. So people saw that I had an interest. I really followed my dad around and watched him when he was wiring the addition on our house. And he showed me the basics--like how to wire up a light bulb to a battery with a switch, that type of thing. And after that--I was pretty much stuck. I was asking my teachers and parents questions that they couldn't answer. So one of my teachers went and tried to find a mentor by contacting the local volunteer group in our town and she found John McConnell, who was able to take me from there and teach me, over the next seven years every Saturday at his house, more bioelectronics, how to make circuit boards, how to read and design schematics--that type of thing. So then after he gave me all that knowledge over the last few years--I've been able to take it and continue to learn more and expand to learn about microcontrollers, programming computers--that type of thing.
John McConnell, who directs a math and science center for kindergarten through 12th grade students and teachers in Grand Junction, says he knew immediately that Patterson had a tremendous amount of potential.
I've watched this young man since the third grade. I've had him for about nine and half years. I really saw very early on that he really had potential. It was the focus and the passion that he had. Third graders--well, let's say that their attention span is not the longest. But he was a kid who'd come at nine o'clock in the morning and be pointed in one direction he was going to go that day--and stay that way until five. So it's been a lot of drive on his part--a lot of hard work. And it's just been a great joy for my wife and I both to have this young man. It's really an incredible experience. It's fun to mentor a kid and see that you have some part in helping them create something then help him reach their potential, and help them with their passion. It's something that I'd really like to encourage seniors to do. I'm retired now--to me it's give back time and it's payback time in life. And what better thing, to give something back to kids.
Although portability wasn't one of Patterson's top priorities, it became an obvious concern. So he also developed a scaled-down version of the device and replaced the laptop with a small wireless receiver and display unit roughly the size of a TV remote. Two small microcontrollers perform the translation. And even with all the accolades, Patterson has many improvements in mind for his bilingual glove.
I guess my next goal is to try this glove to be a viable enough product to be successful on the market and to get it out there so that people who need it can use it. This project is very applicable and it's a project that could really help people that have the need for such a device. I think it has a great application to the quality of human life for some people.