American Sign Language (ASL) is the most widely-used sign language in the U.S. One portion of the language includes finger-spelling, with different hand positions for each letter of the alphabet. If you don’t know the sign for a given word, you can always spell it out. One problem with ASL is that like any other language, it’s difficult to communicate with someone else if only one of you knows ASL. That’s why interpreters are used to translate between spoken English and ASL in courtrooms and other settings.

If you’re not one of the estimated half million people who know ASL, you may soon be able to use an intelligent glove to translate for you. Researchers at University of California San Diego have created a wireless glove that senses finger positions and then transmits these as letters. The team came up with a clever approach; they used sensors that determine whether or not each finger joint is bent or not.  The electrical resistance of stretchable plastic strips with a carbon coating changes when they are bent. This allows the system to assign a binary value — 1 or 0 — to each knuckle. This creates a value that describes the position of all the fingers. Some letters generate the same value, such as “I” and “J”; pressure and motion sensors are used to distinguish between these letters. Once detected, the data is sent via Bluetooth

Perhaps the most impressive fact of this project is that it was built using off-the-shelf components and materials. Starting with a typical athletic glove, the entire device cost less than $100 to build. The low-cost system could be used as a platform for other applications, such as a user interface to control machines and other devices. With miniaturization of the controller and energy-harvesting, this could evolve into a wearable device with many uses beyond sign language translation.