It started with a glove designed to help him speak to his parents, both of whom are deaf. Now it has the potential to break down communication barriers in banks, hospitals, schools and even airports.
Born and bred in a rural village outside Thohoyandou in Limpopo Province, South Africa, Lucky Netshidzati is the inventor of sign language recognition technology that helps the non-hearing communicate with the hearing.
Lucky’s technology was recently the subject of a Standard Bank brand repositioning advertisement and his work has received recognition all over the world.
Standard Bank recently launched their It Can Be tagline which speaks to finding new and innovative ways to fulfil dreams. Lucky’s story captures the spirit of It Can Be and demonstrates that Africans from all walks of life can reach their goals. Standard Bank hopes that by telling Lucky’s story they will be able to help him find the necessary funding to take his invention to the world.
The technology, which started off as an intelligent glove which translates sign language into a computer-generated voice, is nearly ready to go to market in the form of sign language recognition technology. It requires only a television, mounted camera, and mobile app to allow people who could not speak to each other in the past do so with ease today.
“I was raised in a deaf community and growing up I had difficulty communicating with my parents. Both are deaf so there was always a communication barrier between me and them. Many of my parent’s friends were also deaf so I was exposed to the community quite a bit growing up.”
Being part of this community at an early age lead to many challenges for Lucky, so when he was in high school his parents chose to send him to live with his grandmother.
“My parents wanted me to be in a speech environment so that I could speak and communicate. When I finished grade 12, I moved to Pretoria and that is where I started putting pressure on myself to make sure my idea comes to fruition.”
In 2015 Lucky started researching his invention and in 2017 the glove was patented and has received attention from both local and international parties.
But how does it work?
“The technology allows for ease of communication both ways. On one end a deaf person wears gloves with flag sensors attached to it. When the person signs the sensors read the gestures of the movement of the hand and translates it to voice. The technology also allows for a hearing person to communicate with a deaf person using a mobile app. The app detects your voice and translates what you are saying into South African sign language which is displayed on the phone thanks to a coded database of animations. Your voice is also converted to text which is simultaneously displayed on the phone.”
The next evolution of the technology includes the use of smart screens in spaces such as hospitals, banks, libraries, classrooms, and airports. In this case a deaf person does not need the smart gloves to communicate but would sign in front of a screen with a camera attached to it. The camera picks up the hand movements and send this information to hardware which is built into the screen. This hardware detects the gestures and movement of the hands and translates them to voice and text which appears on the screen, eliminating the need for a translator in these environments.
The prototype of this technology as well as the glove technology has already been developed and Lucky is currently looking for investors to roll his invention out in South Africa first before taking it to the rest of the world.
“The aim is to take this technology globally. In 2018 and 2019 I travelled to the UAE. They have expressed interest but are waiting the results of the roll out of the technology in South Africa.”
“If we can get the funding we need, we could be out in early next year. We are trying to eliminate the challenges that come with interpretation. In my research and work with disabled people I asked them what some of the challenges they were facing were. One of the challenges that came up was the need for an interpreter to communicate in lecture theatres and classrooms and that there is often room for human error which leads to the wrong information being translated. The vision behind the technology is to eliminate human error and to ensure that everyone can communicate no matter their hearing ability,” Lucky says.
One of the places that Lucky’s technology might find an application is in the Dubai International Airport which is one of the biggest interchanges for travel in the world and where language barriers can often be a problem. It also has potential applications in hospitals and schools.
It’s use in banks and hospitals will also help to provide patients with privacy when discussing sensitive financial or health matters. It will also help to ensure that patients in hospitals and clinics receive the correct medication as it once again removes the possibility for human error when it comes to interpretation.
“In the future I hope to see the glove technology being used by deaf people who need to communicate with people in their everyday lives – whether that is telling a taxi driver where they want to go or buying food in a shop. I hope the use of monitors also becomes commonplace and helps to break down communication barriers in public spaces. I am very excited that with the invention I have come up with the voice of the deaf community will be heard,” says Lucky.