YouthSpark Star

Team Quad Squad

Four Ukrainian students won the Imagine Cup for inventing gloves that turn sign language into speech.

A Way to Talk With Your Hands—Literally

The ideas were wide-ranging, until one of the team members mentioned a recent experience in a supermarket. He saw a cashier struggling to communicate with a person who was deaf. That launched the four Ukrainian computer science students into a discussion about the troubles that students with hearing impairments had at their computer academy.

“Once we started talking, it all sort of clicked,” said Maxim Osika, a member of Team Quad Squad. “We wanted to create something that could help them in their pursuit to communicate. The hearing-impaired students try really hard to do the best they can, but sometimes it’s really difficult.”

Maxim and the others researched the idea and were surprised to learn that no such devices are available on the market. The team decided it would create a pair of gloves that could translate sign language into spoken word.

That day, Enable Talk was born.

They started building the prototype for the gloves in January 2012 and worked though weekends and nights to finish in time for the Microsoft 2012 Imagine Cup in Sydney, Australia, in July.

The Enable Talk gloves turn sign language into speech.

The Enable Talk gloves turn sign language into speech.

The gloves, which can be used for phone calls or face–to-face conversations, combine sensors on the fingers with a controller that analyzes hand motions in the air, compares them to a library of sign language, and then generates the verbal equivalent of the sign through a smartphone.

They use flex sensors, gyroscopes, touch sensors, and accelerometers and can be adjusted to any form of sign language. There are an estimated 360 million people globally who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the World Health Organization. The goal of the gloves is to allow the estimated 70 million people who use sign language to communicate with people who don’t.

Enable Talk won first place in the innovation category, beating 350 students from 75 countries. The prize included US$25,000 to help with development and testing.

Imagine Cup, the premier worldwide student technology competition and a Microsoft YouthSpark program, challenges young technologists to create something that takes on one of the world’s toughest problems.

Team Quad Squad reacts to the news they won the Imagine Cup.

Team Quad Squad reacts to the news they won the Imagine Cup.

“Imagine Cup was so amazing and wonderful,” Maxim said. “There were so many people from so many countries with great ideas. It was fun to be around all the people and we really loved the experience.”

The press was overwhelming. Time magazine named Enable Talk one of the Best Inventions of 2012. Forbes magazine wrote a news story about the team. The Ukrainian press went nuts and the government recognized Maxim and the others with an award for creating a more positive image of Ukraine.

“Imagine Cup has been very helpful for us,” said Maxim, now 27. “It would have taken us years and years to get this kind of exposure globally normally. Since we won, we’ve had emails from all over the world offering to help us and invest seed funding.”

After Imagine Cup, finalists were eligible to apply for a US $50,000 Imagine Cup Grant from Microsoft.

Enable Talk won that too.

Team members Valeriy Yasakov, 25; Maxim Osika, 27; and Anton Posternikov, 29.

Team members Valeriy Yasakov, 25; Maxim Osika, 27; and Anton Posternikov, 29.

“Winning first place at Imagine Cup felt really good,” said Maxim, “and getting another $50,000 made it more real. The business infrastructure in the Ukraine is underdeveloped, so it’s hard to find financing or venture capital because investors are more skeptical. The grant from Microsoft has been really helpful.”

The team is using the grant money to help with technical challenges and to hire lawyers. The members are now fundraising to finish development by the end of the year. They have put university on hold and are working on the project full time.

The gloves can now translate 50 words, but the team is working on expanding to 200 before the launch. The gloves are being tested with native signers to build the standard signs. It takes about three minutes to program each gesture. The gloves and technology will cost about $300.

Andrey Terekhov, who works in developer and platform evangelism at the Microsoft Central and Eastern European headquarters, has been mentoring the team since they were selected to represent Ukraine at the Imagine Cup.

“Enable Talk is a very strong team,” Terekhov said. “They found a very good balance between technical details and the broader vision for what could be done with technology. The team has a great speaker, who radiates a positive attitude, a really nice designer and most importantly, a great and powerful idea.”

More YouthSpark Stars
Photo Gallery
Jeremy’s Story

Jeremy’s Story

Microsoft engineers are teaching young people around the United States how to code. Read how computer science changed this rural Kentuckian’s life.

Domineisha’s Story

Domineisha’s Story

Crowd funding helped this South Central LA youth get one step closer to realizing her dreams.

Ranjeet’s Story

Ranjeet’s Story

Ranjeet traveled miles to take technology classes and now supports his family with the income from his own mobile repair shop in India.