Enterprise Europe Network

Breaking down barriers with on-screen sign language avatar

The proliferation of sign language has enabled more deaf people to enjoy visual content than ever before. With Enterprise Europe Network's support, an Austrian SME has taken this one step further by developing an on-screen avatar that can turn information into sign language using smart algorithms.

team of SiMAX, the sign language avatar

The proliferation of sign language has enabled more deaf people to enjoy visual content than ever before. With Enterprise Europe Network's support, an Austrian SME has taken this one step further by developing an on-screen avatar that can turn information into sign language using smart algorithms.

The concept, called SiMAX, is a software tool that translates source text using a database of vocabulary, and then generates an avatar to perform the final translation on screen. "For deaf people sign language is their mother tongue," said SignTime CEO Dr. Georg Tschare. "Written text is often hard to catch for them, so what SiMAX does is translate spoken words into the language they know."

There are around 1 million deaf people living in Europe and 50 million people who are hard of hearing. Providing barrier-free communication could transform the lives of a significant sector of society. While SignTime knew it had identified a potential game-changer in visual communication for the deaf, it faced the kinds of obstacles that many SMEs face: attracting capital and knowledge, and convincing potential customers.

Going international

For a small business like SignTime, this was especially daunting given that end users were likely to be large corporations and public-sector institutions. "You need a lot of combined knowledge to have achieved what we have achieved, and this was our unique selling point," said Tschare. "Half of our team is made up of deaf people, which is also a huge asset for us. However, it was still hard for us to find the right contact person."

SignTime made its initial contact with the Enterprise Europe Network via regional development agency, the Vienna Business Agency, which knew that the company was looking for international project partners. "As the Network is well connected with all relevant regional and national stakeholders, we were able to provide SignTime with 34 quality-checked contacts," said Andrea Kindler from the Austrian Research Promotion Agency, one of the Network members in Austria.

The Network also found suitable business coaches and advised on financing opportunities under the the EU’s Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, a programme designed to help innovative small firms with high growth. "For me the key result is that the Network gives continuous support in finding commercial partners as well as international project partners," added Kindler. As a result, SignTime’s international network has been vastly expanded.

Spreading the word

The company now has a working prototype on the market. It has secured major customers, including the German rail network and a German regional authority responsible for running schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly. "The Network really supported us in finding valuable contacts," says Tschare. "They also helped us to write funding proposals, which would otherwise have just been too much work."

The SiMAX solution therefore has massive potential in helping public and private institutions make their products and services more readily accessible for deaf people. Digital visual content is uploaded onto the internet every day, without a quick way of automatically translating material into sign language.

"We are not finished with our development," Tschare added. "We want to enter this mass market, and therefore need to expand our vocabulary and continually improve our software. A vocabulary of about 5 000 signs in each language is usually necessary to be able to translate most texts. By 2019, we expect to add signs for British, French, Italian, Spanish and Polish sign languages."

Since the project began, SignTime has increased from 4 to 10 full time employees. The company has also employed 5 deaf people and have a further 2 positions planned.

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