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Changemakers: Hadeel Ayoub is designing gloves that translate sign language

A video of a young boy struggling to be understood was the catalyst for a remarkable journey to the cutting edge of communication tech

Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, 36-year-old Hadeel Ayoub, whose brush with a simple video, sparked an idea that’s bringing a voice to those who cannot speak.

The change came when Hadeel Ayoub woke up to an email. It contained a video, sent by a desperate mother, of her 14-year-old son on a train, quiet and signing with his hands. No one understood what he was trying to communicate, and in that moment he looked isolated.

It was the push the Saudi designer needed to set herself on a new path. Ayoub, 36, previously taught digital design to girls in Saudi Arabia before moving to the UK in 2014 to study a Master’s degree in computational arts. The email, arriving during a post-graduation lull, convinced her to sign up for a PhD in arts and computational technology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“I sobbed through the whole day – because I have kids, it really hit my heart,” she says, recalling the footage of the boy on the train. “And then I felt selfish, like when a doctor has a cure but won’t give it out because he doesn’t feel like it.

“My thought process was simple. If I can make that kid’s life better, let me see what I can do.”

Ayoub is the founder of BrightSign: a smart glove complete with companion app that tracks hand motions to produce speech from sign language. Unlike most assistive technology available to speech-disabled people, it is fully customisable and, perhaps most significantly, at £500 is a fraction of the cost of other devices. Each device is handmade by Ayoub, largely using the facilities she has access to as part of her PhD, and takes around a day to build from start to completion.

The glove, in its most primitive form, was created by Ayoub for art while studying towards her Master’s degree. She says: “I got a little bit greedy. I didn’t want to design using the keyboard. I wanted to draw designs in the air.”

It wasn’t until Ayoub was invited to represent her university at a hackathon in South Korea that she identified the glove’s potential. The event tasked participants with using artificial intelligence for social care. With a virtually complete prototype already to hand, she programmed the same tech for sign language instead of design. And won the hackathon.

The glove went viral and Ayoub was contacted by dozens of parents, teachers and speech therapists showing how her invention could change lives. That’s when she was shown the boy on the train.

When Ayoub threw herself into her PhD she began researching the assistive technology that was already out there – and why people didn’t always have access to what they needed. “I realised the devices already available which provide even basic help are very expensive, starting at £2,000,” Ayoub says. “They also lack customisation – but everyone is different, every disability is different.”

My 3 tips for success

  1. It’s never too late to change directions and pursue something new.
  2. Make sure you’re tackling the problems presented by previous attempts at a project. It wouldn’t make sense to make something else that had the same issues.
  3. Find a way to do what you love, you will most likely excel in it.

Eleven prototypes later and the designer-turned-programmer-turned-engineer has conducted pilot studies in schools across the country. She secured funding from councils so families are not burdened with the cost of the device.

“I learn so much when I work with people because they show me features that need to be there that I hadn’t thought of,” she says. During her visits, she is helping children learn Christmas carols through the gloves so that they can sign them at home over the holidays.

Ayoub recognised that children and exposed tech could be a risk, so sought out 3D printing facilities to build parts which would encapsulate the hardware. Her final touch was to print child-friendly designs on the glove. She says: “It’s fashion tech, and I have no clue about fashion. But I do know how to use a 3D printer.”

Ayoub’s focus shifted when she received a call from someone whose mother had suffered a stroke and lost the ability to talk. Luckily, Ayoub’s familiarity with AI meant she quickly thought up a solution. “We decided that if the lady could make up her own signs, as long as they were consistent, we could make something work with machine learning software.” Ayoub also added a translation API to allow the user to switch between languages – verbal and signed.

Finally, with the help of company Unique Voices, Ayoub made it possible for users to record as much of their own speech, or that of a loved one, through the app. The speech is then synthesised into a fully operational conversational voice, allowing more authentic day-to-day interactions for users.

She is now, she says, in search of funding and ready to move forward, with hopes of launching the product by the new year – mass-producing devices for her 700-strong waiting list and beyond.

Ayoub’s story speaks to people. Some take inspiration from her having learned to code aged 30; others recognise her fearless changes of career direction; some – Ayoub included – are aware she inhabits a male-dominated space. She is often the only woman presenting at exhibitions for health care innovation or wearable tech.

Describing AI in social care as “the difference between life and death,” she brushes off commonly held fears. “Yes, it will replace us, but other opportunities will open up,” she says. “And that’s how we should be looking at it. Moving forward.”

Find out more on brightsignglove.com

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