Kara's Emergency Annoucements Project
This is Maori for 'Hello'.
Kara Technologies is a New Zealand based company specialising in the creation of photorealistic avatars that use sign language. There are many applications to this groundbreaking technology that are life-changing for the Deaf communities worldwide which include the educational, entertainment/media and public announcements/emergency broadcasts and this post will focus on the emergency aspect.
Currently more than 1.5 billion people (nearly 20% of the global population) live with hearing loss. 430 million of them have disabling hearing loss. It is expected that by 2050, there could be over 700 million people with disabling hearing loss. This does not factor in other disabilities or life circumstances that contribute to an individual using sign language such as other disabilities or being a Child(ren) Of Deaf Parents (CODA).
As technology, in particular mobile phones, have become an integral aspect of everyday life for people, the dependence on this device for information has become standard. Especially when it comes to emergency broadcasts. However, many Deaf people have trouble accessing and understanding the information due to limited access to education from childhood and lack of their native language at home which leads to many having literacy levels that are below average.
Kara Technologies was founded when the CEO, Arash Tayebi, was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease and lost the hearing of one ear as an adult and started investigating the Deaf community. What he learnt in terms of the barriers that face the Deaf community was the catalyst for what became Kara. Kara operates on the philosophy of "For Deaf with Deaf" - from beginning to end there is always a Deaf person/community involved.
When Humanitech (under Red Cross) announced their grant program to encourage companies to create solutions to widespread issues and impacts on society, Kara decided to apply for this initiative by using their avatar technology to create a sign language program that is easy to use in conjunction with emergency broadcast messages and other ways of communication using motion capture (mo-cap). The concept is pre-recording clips of each emergency department's messages which in turn are seamlessly spliced together with animation blending. The website where all the separate clips are stored then makes a single video which can be attached to the SMS by using a link to the website with the video that has been created.
The benefits of this are enormous. It provides access to Deaf people at the same time as everyone else and is in their native language. It also, critically, provides life-saving information instantaneously.
We successfully got accepted into the first round.
For a quick demo of the basic concept, click on this link.
We had to get community feedback on this initiative so we chose to focus on Australia for several reasons. Humanitech is based there as well as the close proximity to New Zealand and the much larger Deaf population there.
NOTE: This technology can be translated into ANY SIGN LANGUAGE IN THE WORLD. The reason for this is the mo-cap used - if America used this we would employ a native American Sign Language (ASL) user. Sign language is not universal which is what makes this technology tailor made for creating content worldwide. All that is required is one native sign language user and the Kara team.
Feedback from survey #1: We gave SES text message straight away emergency but these are wordings. Yours emergency sign language will do fantastic for deaf people can’t read text. Excellent
We went to Australia twice. In the first trip three major cities were visited on 11-17 November - Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane - and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. There is a very clear and real demand for this kind of access. Consider that in Australia alone, in the last three years there have been major fires, floods and Covid outbreaks with minimal access to emergency information.
We used live presentations while simultaneously live-streaming and a QR code that links to a simple questionnaire asking whether this was a good idea to implement. If you would like to view the presentation from Brisbane (all three are on our YouTube channel), here is the link.
In the second trip, we went to the Sydney Deaf Festival on the 26th November 2022 and had a booth there. The responses from this were 100% positive. 39/39 people said yes this is a necessary and important development for the Deaf community.
It is still not too late to participate in the survey - the deadline for this is 29 January 2023. After this date, Humanitech will be selecting the ideas that will go into the second round.
The main objective of this technology is not to supplant sign language interpreters or to disrupt that essential service. There are situations where it is simply not possible to get an interpreter in time to film a sign language message to attach to the emergency broadcasts.
A fire breaks out at 2am and has started raging out of control. The fire department creates the SMS and then opens the program and selects the salient options which would look something like:
Fire > Location > Extreme risk > Evacuate immediately
This would create a video clip virtually instantly and then they would attach this to the SMS and immediately broadcast it.
The sign language interpreter would then be used for all further media broadcasts and interviews (such as the news). It is this immediate access to alerts that Kara is focusing their technology on, which can and will save lives. In emergencies, minutes can mean the difference between life and death.
What needs to be understood here is that this is not a live translating service i.e. sign language interpreting. It does not work like google translate with text to speech/speech to text. That technology is still years away (we dream of it too! And hope to get there one day.) and with current technology, not possible to achieve. Sign language is its own language with full, rich grammar and lexicon. Most importantly, expressions and body language add a level of nuance that is not translatable especially in real time. What this does is pre-record snippets of sign language and then create a 'library' of signs which can then be connected to create simple sentences.
Feedback from QR survey #2: I think this is a fantastic thing. This has been needed for decades. I’m a CODA and have worried about my family safety a lot but this will definitely help keep Deaf Australians safe. Excited about improving Deaf agency and independence.
This technology can be adapted to work with any emergency system. It is as simple as clicking each box and selecting the suitable context then creating it. There is no obstacle to using this and using mo-cap the pre-recorded messages will be tailored to each emergency department. Fire, flood, cyclone, earthquake, you name it. Check out this short video for a quick demostration of how this works (remember: this is only a demo, it is a starting point)
The Deaf communities have been advocating for access for decades and this is a very important step in the right direction with staggering implications for expanding its use into other areas. Think about public transport and airports. Route changes, delays, all these things that non-disabled people simply take for granted and can easily ask or listen for announcements and updates are very difficult and/or impossible for Deaf people to navigate especially when people are panicking or angry and unwilling to take the two minutes to slow down and explain to the bewildered Deaf person what is happening. This is especially true for natural disasters and Deaf people have frequently reported being the last to know what is happening and what to do as everyone else dashes off to do or save what is important to them.
You can show your support by clicking on this link and filling out the short survey or alternately, use your phone to scan the QR code:
Quote from QR survey #3: Add gas leak, hostage, cyclone. Fantastic idea i think. I support this.
We have completed all the necessary work for phase one of the Humanitech project. If we get into the second phase of funding we will be collaborating with one state of Australia to trial the prototype of the final product. This will iron out any kinks and ensure that the system is ready to be launched.
In phase three, we aim to fully launch this service for use by all emergency broadcast SMS systems with all emergency services.
We at Kara Technologies truly believe this is essential for the Deaf community worldwide and have created the technology to make it a reality. All we need is your feedback to reinforce our evidence when we submit the report and summary of feedback to Humanitech to get into the second round and further funding to refine this initiative into a fully polished and ready tool to save lives.
With thanks to Red Cross/Humanitech