Sign Language Interfaces

Nancy Frishberg, Apple Computer

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 10, 1995

with a guest appearance by RALPH, shown by David L. Jaffe, Palo Alto VA Hospital (


Surveying current work in computer-based methods for teaching, learning, storing, retrieving and manipulating sign language forms offers a new window on questions of human-computer interaction, natural language processing and gesture generation and recognition. The sign languages referred to are fully formed natural languages linked to cultural values and social behaviors in deaf communities.

Collaborations between technology specialists and sign language specialists could result in truly useful and usable applications. Understanding the expected audiences and settings of use as well as choices in technology are crucial to interface design. Are we designing for hearing literate adults learning a second language at home or deaf children with limited experience in any language using equipment at school? Do we need random access to lots of full screen video or will a smaller video display mixed with live camera work better? How does the content developer's interface differ from the ultimate user's interface? One positive development is number of sign language interface projects which include deaf people as part of the design and implementation teams. Equally exciting is the fact that projects are no longer only experimental, but are reaching maturity and coming into the marketplace.

Projects in notation and transcription systems, first and second language acquisition, dictionary making, non-text representations and displays from the U.S. and nearly a dozen other countries will be described, demonstrated or sampled on videotape. In addition, we will consider some experiments in automatic recognition of sign languages and electronic transmission of signing. And, we'll enjoy a live demo of RALPH, a computer-controlled electromechanical hand that produces fingerspelling for people who are deaf-blind.


NANCY FRISHBERG has written and spoken extensively on sign language, interpreting, language teaching and evaluation for the past twenty-five years. Frishberg holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UCSD, is a certified sign language interpreter and instructor. Her book, "Interpreting: An Introduction", is the primary text for sign language interpreter instruction in the U.S.

A former academic, she has been involved in technology work for the past decade. Her work on multimedia interfaces and usability from IBM's Watson Research Center has been presented at CHI and won an IICS award. She is currently with Apple's Newton Licensing Programs. She also serves on the board of the Association for Software Design.

RALPH will be shown by DAVID L. JAFFE of the VA Medical Center, Palo Alto.


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