Kent State student develops technology to bridge communication barriers


Joshua Ishihara, a senior applied engineering major, has created a glove that speaks sign language.

Cameron Gorman

American Sign Language(ASL) has helped those with hearing deficiencies communicate with others since the early 19th century. Even as technology improves the lives of many different groups of people, however, communication barriers remain a problem in the deaf community.

For Joshua Ishihara, a senior applied engineering major at Kent State, these barriers became obvious after a routine visit to the dentist.

“There was a dentist who had a lady in her chair—elderly, couldn’t talk very well— and she couldn’t hear,” Ishihara said. “She wasn’t able to tell them what was going on.”

Ishihara picked up sign language at a young age through his family’s interest in learning.

“My parents always used it when we were kids to sort of talk to us every now and then in sign language, so we knew a little bit growing up,” Ishihara said.

That knowledge proved useful at the dentist that mday.

“Using letters and pointing, she was able to tell me exactly the feeling she was having,” Ishihara said. “(It) made me realize that there was a gap or a barrier between ASL users and non-ASL users, and that’s where the idea came from.”

That idea was a glove that could speak sign language out loud. Users would sign the letters wearing the glove and flexible sensors would then determine the degree of motion of the fingers in resistance, correlating to different ranges of numbers that cause different letters and sounds to be voiced.

“Basically, the prototype that I made was that you can do 10 letters of the alphabet  … and when you do the letters, like ‘H,’ ,’it’ll say ‘H,’” Ishihara said.

The glove also incorporates 3D manipulation through a chip Ishihara created.

“As you move your hand, it’s able to interpret in space where your hand is at, where it moved, what it’s doing,” he said. “With that data combined with the letters, you can do full words.”

The ASL glove, form-fitting and bearing interior sensors, has come a long way since its bulky early prototype created for a class Ishihara was enrolled in.

The course—Individual Investigation— was taught by Evren Koptura, a lecturer in Kent State’s College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology.

“I loved the idea because it’s definitely something that can be applicable into the technology,” Koptur said. “It actually started as a class project for him.”

The uses for the glove also extend to the education.

“ASL users have come up to me (and have) said that it’s a fantastic idea (and) that they would use it,” Ishihara said. “ASL teachers (also) love it for the classroom.”

The glove could also assist hearing students in learning how to use ASL.

“(It is) not just for eliminating that communication barrier between ASL and non-ASL—I think this can be almost like an application tool to learn ASL,” Koptur said. “With the glove, each time you give it hand gestures, it’s going to tell you if you’re doing it right or wrong. So it can be used as a great educational tool too.” 

The glove, however, is still a work in progress.

“When you’re signing ASL, it’s very fast. With that comes the processing power and the database you’re going to need,” Ishihara said. “The database is vast; for the words, the letters and the sentence structures.”

ASL has a unique structure in which some articles such as “a, as or of” are dropped, and other sentence structures are ordered differently than English.

“We’d have to figure that out, put it in the database and then have the computer be able to interpret that,” Ishihara said. “That’s a very large task for a small device to be able to do.”

Ishihara is still hopeful that with time, the device might be able to be used generally, despite difficulties.

“That limitation does come into play, but with newer technology, bigger storage, faster processing power, things like that,” Ishihara said. “We’re going to be able to achieve that soon, if not already.”

Beyond the glove, he hopes to engineer similar devices—as well as military robotics—to achieve his ultimate goal: assisting others.

“That’s my future dream right now, to go into robotic prosthetics,” Ishihara said. “My niche, or where I try to aim for, is helping individuals.”

Contact Cameron Gorman at [email protected].