MotionSavvy has developed a device that could be a communication breakthrough for millions of deaf and head of hearing individuals who cannot speak but want to connect with the hearing world in real time.
The UNI is a tablet and attachment that leverages motion-sensing cameras and voice recognition to translate American Sign Language into spoken words — and spoken words into text — in real time. The device was named one of Time magazine’s Top 25 inventions of the year.
Not Impossible Now recently emailed with MotionSavvy’s CEO Ryan Hait-Campbell, who happens to be deaf, about the device and the company’s Indiegogo campaign to raise $40,000 by December 20, so it can offer the device to schools and deaf individuals who might not be able to afford it otherwise. UNI may soon not only improve communication for the deaf, but also could boost their ability to become more competitive in the workforce.
NIN: You developed your first prototype in February. How many of the UNI devices have been produced and are any of them in use now?
Ryan Hait-Campbell: Currently, there are only five working prototypes of UNI. We will begin mass production in the near future after our pre-sale campaign on Indiegogo ends.
Is this the first portable two-way communication device for the deaf community? What is the current widely used portable communication device and what doesn’t it have that UNI offers?
Hait-Campbell: It is the first mobile two-way communication device for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Currently, there are standalone devices that are extremely heavy and meant to do only one thing: interpret. Some products require people to sit down and type messages to each other, whereas other products require a third party (such as Video Relay Systems). These kinds of products can't actually offer natural face-to-face communication (typing vs. talking or signing).
As many products cost over $1,000, UNI is the most affordable and the tablet allows you to do other things such as check email, browse the Internet, play games, and so on.
What is the genesis of UNI? What went into the R&D? Was there university or government funding or is this completely a private enterprise? I see that MotionSavvy was born in November 2012. Who, besides yourself, was there at the birth?
Hait-Campbell: The idea started early, but it wasn't until 2013, when Wade Kellard, Alex Opalka, Jordan Stemper and myself decided to take a chance and present the concept of MotionSavvy at NTID’s Next Big Idea contest located at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). All of us love to invent things and we definitely wanted to build something that helps people who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing and their peers. We actually ended up winning third place, but MotionSavvy soon became so much more than a school competition.
Soon after, we applied and were admitted into RIT’s coveted Saunders Startup Program to learn how to get our business in motion. In January of this year, we decided to take time off of school when we were accepted into Leap Motion’s AXLR8R program so that we could create a functional prototype and turn our dream into a reality.
Is everyone on the MotionSavvy team from Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute deaf?
Hait-Campbell: Yes, all of us are either Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
UNI is only compatible on the Dell Venue 8 Pro. Was the Dell Venue 8 Pro instrumental in helping developing the product?
Hait-Campbell: The Dell Venue 8 Pro is a tablet that actually runs on a desktop operating [system] as opposed to a mobile operating system that most tablets usually rely on. Although gesture recognition technology has come far, most mobile devices aren't optimized yet to handle that kind of advanced technology. Thus, the Dell Venue 8 Pro was very instrumental in our initial developments and testing out the UNI software.
I understand that the case for the tablet required some special crafting. Was that the most challenging part? If not, what was the biggest hurdle for creating the device?
Hait-Campbell: The case itself is not that hard to develop, but overall the hardest part of the product was coming up with a scalable solution to allow people to add in their own signs in the system and make those signs a overall part of the database users can access. We’ve achieved this by creating the “SignBuilder” program and this allows us to customize each UNI to the person instead of building one UNI for all.
What impact will this device have on deaf people's lives?
Hait-Campbell: While growing up, countless friends go through a painful process of finding a job or communicating with co-workers, which limits their ability to really find good paying jobs. I saw a massive human need problem that could not easily be fixed due to cost of current options.
With UNI, day-to-day challenges regarding face-to-face communication are no longer problems. Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are not limited to text or instant messages, emails or whiteboards and can unabashedly speak their thoughts and opinions. This could make the difference for someone who is hearing impaired and getting paid minimum wage as a retail backroom stocker to a social media consultant or an investment banker with a six-figure salary.
How does the tablet “see” the leap motion or sign language motion? For example, is there a camera somewhere near the screen?
Hait-Campbell: There are actually two cameras that are embedded into the UNI tablet case. Once you open the UNI software on the tablet, the cameras are active and you can begin signing over the tablet.
I see you have different pricing programs. Is $399 the amount it costs to lease the UNI tablet for a year through the Indiegogo campaign? Will customers be able to buy them outright?
Hait-Campbell: You can pre-order a UNI for actually $198 until December 20, 2015. The $399 option is a donation package that helps us donate a UNI to a person in need. Once the Indiegogo campaign ends on December 20th, UNI will cost over $500.
Are the devices being delivered now to people or schools from the proceeds you’ve raised through Indiegogo? If not, when will they be receiving them?
Hait-Campbell: Any person or organization that has purchased UNI through our current Indiegogo campaign will receive the device before the end of 2015.
Is there a particular response you’ve received through your crowdsourcing/fundraising effort to distribute the devices that has really touched you, either from a contributor or a recipient?
Hait-Campbell: Yes, the social media responses and positive comments through emails have been overwhelming. One girl in particular filmed and created a YouTube video where she talks in American Sign Language about the impact UNI would have on her life. This sparked us to begin a social media campaign where our community could share how UNI would impact their lives as well.
You can add new vocabulary into the system with SignBuilder and CrowdSign. Are those proprietary software to UNI?
Hait-Campbell: Yes, our engineering team has developed this software specifically for UNI.
You’ve raised $28,382 of the $40,000 (or 70 percent) of your goal on Indiegogo to provide the devices to the needy or schools for the deaf. Why that target? And are you on target with your projections? Will they become more affordable as more and more are produced?
Hait-Campbell: We are aiming to raise $40,000 to be able to spread initial awareness about UNI and also promote early adopter usage so that we can continue to develop and improve programs such as SignBuilder. When more people begin to use UNI, the bigger our database of sign language grows. We are dedicated to making UNI affordable for everyone in need, thus we hope to partner with organizations and the government in order to help us in our efforts to make UNI available to everyone.
In the past, the problem with voice recognition software has been that it only recognized the voice patterns of the person who had registered their voice and trained it to understand their speech patterns. Does UNI allow users to communicate with speaking strangers or people they haven’t spoken with before in real time?
Hait-Campbell: UNI uses Dragon Pro 12 Voice Recognition software, which is the most advanced of its kind. Due to this, UNI will allow users to talk to strangers or new acquaintances in real time.
How did you feel when your invention was named one of Time magazine's inventions of the year?
Hait-Campbell: I’ve read Time magazine since I was 14 years old, and it’s nothing short of amazing that we were put on Time magazine’s Top 25 inventions of 2014. My mother was especially proud and [was] very surprised as she has a subscription that goes straight to her home, and I did not mention we would be in the publication. One morning she started emailing me all freaked out. It was a great feeling, and I certainly did not expect UNI to be this well received publicly as it mostly impacts the deaf community.
When do you project its availability on Android and iOS? Will it be by the time UNI is mass-produced?
Hait-Campbell: We are planning to release UNI for Android as our next product, but there is no way to confirm timing as we focus on making our first UNI as functional as possible and getting it out to our early supporters and backers.
Are there applications for UNI outside of the deaf community? For example, those afflicted with ALS or stroke victims?
Hait-Campbell: We are open to many possibilities for the future, but we are currently focused on addressing our current target market and delivering the product. Once we understand how we can improve, we hope to be able to aid those who want to keep natural communication as a part of their daily lives.
And finally, what advice do you have for young people in science and technology, especially those in the deaf community, who want to make a difference in the world?
Hait-Campbell: Human curiosity is our best asset. Be curious about the world and question everything, look for new ways to solve current problems. Get involved with programming at a young age, find mentors who you admire and can learn from. And lastly, education does not end in the classroom. Take up a hobby that knows no bounds, and it’ll take you far.
Top photo courtesy of MotionSavvy