Avatar signs Web pages for the deaf

Guido the virtual signer could point the way towards better standards of accessibility online

Those deaf people who have trouble understanding written English could soon be able to access online information faster and easier, according to software experts at a British university who have created a virtual human that uses sign language to read out a Web page.

Computer academics at the University of East Anglia (UEA) teamed with the Royal National Institute for Deaf people (RNID) and Norwich-based animation company Televirtual to build Guido — a virtual signer.

"Traditional methods of animating virtual humans involve dressing people in cumbersome body suits and can be very time consuming," said Professor John Glauert of the UEA. "With our sign language notation, experts can use a standard PC to prepare and fine-tune the animation."

The university said it took two years to develop the technology, which launched on Norfolk-based charity Web site Deaf Connexions on Wednesday.

The launch, made during Deaf Awareness Week (which ran from 2 May to 6 May), will enable deaf people to communicate with Norfolk County Council information officers, the university said. Deaf people who want to find out about rubbish collection or library opening times will be able to type their request onto a computer screen and the information officers will then input a set answer, which is then signed by Guido.

The RNID provided two signers to translate British Sign Language hand and facial movements into a set of symbols similar to hieroglyphics.

Sue Moore of Deaf Connexions said she was thrilled that deaf people would be able to understand information on their Web site. "The virtual reality signer will help deaf people whose first language is British sign language and for whom written English is not easily accessible. This technology means that they can access information a lot quicker," Moore said.

The UEA Department of Computer Science is developing a system to allow virtual humans to sign information appearing on television programmes.