Children’s TV producers craft automated sign language

MONTREAL — A pair of children’s television producers have created a multi-media platform that caters to deaf children.

Mark Bishop and Matt Hornburg of marblemedia of Toronto had come up with the idea of a learning series where deaf and hearing children could connect and learn together

in a fun and educational environment. The project,, was to include a TV series and an interactive Web site. In addition to being able to interact with the main characters to learn math, science, health, history and geography, the Web site would also be a place to watch streaming video of the TV series.

The only problem was that the technology to allow deaf children to fully participate in an interactive environment didn’t exist, according to Bishop. There was a lack of technology tools that would enable users to effectively communicate in the sophisticated American Sign Language (ASL). There was also the problem of captioning streaming videos, he said.

With help from their technical architect, Bishop and Hornburg designed the Automated Sign Language Liaison Tool (ASSLT) and Real-Time Web Captioning Engine. Their finished product,, was launched this past summer at the World Congress of the Deaf here in Montreal. The series also aired on TV Ontario and Access Alberta, based on the same story concepts and characters as the Web site.

Here’s how the new tools work: Within the website, the ASSLT adds ASL finger spelling to all menu options. Traditionally, English literacy skills are lower than ASL literary skills in the deaf community. This means that since traditional Web sites use English for explanatory text as well as menu titles, deaf users might have a harder time understanding how to navigate in a website.

With ASSLT enabled on a Web site, when a user hovers with the mouse pointer over a menu item, the mouse cursor changes to a hand and will finger spell in ASL the menu text. This will make that menu option understandable for deaf users, Bishop said.

In addition, the ASL finger spelling alphabet is customizable so that it can be replaced by other sign languages such as French sign language used in Quebec.

The Real-Time Web Captioning Engine is a tool created to allow captions to be added to video intended to be streamed online in real time. Using any text file, the tool is able to attach lines of dialogue to encoded reference points within a file. This allows users to click their way through any piece of encoded video and have a fully captioned piece of video for use on the web. is a great learning tool for deaf and hearing children, said Dr. Anita Small, head of research and development, Deaf Heritage Project at the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf in Toronto. There were no pre-existing nonfiction texts in sign language where Deaf children could access new information and explore independently in their own language, she added.

“”deaf children can access ASL in an online environment as well as English text as they relate it to the ASL they know,”” Small said. “”We are currently making available langue des signes quebecoise (LSQ) as well as American Sign Language (ASL), spoken English and French voice over along with English and French captions.””

In terms of commercial potential for the tools, Bishop said there has been quite a lot of interest shown from other Web producers and a wireless company from Finland. And one producer is interested in marblemedia’s real-time web captioning for a documentary he’s producing in seven different languages.

“We’ve gotten to a level on the Internet where companies can create engaging content to enrich Web sites,”” he said. “”The government is also stepping in to deal with accessibility of the Internet for all people.”

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