Assisting deaf passengers with train travel: AI sign language

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Due to a large majority of station announcements being delivered over tannoy systems, deaf individuals could miss out on vital updates. Frankie Youd explores new technology that translates announcements into sign language.


ilence. All that can be heard as people around you on the station platform suddenly flock to a different location is silence. Some are checking their watches or phones, others are arguing amongst themselves. Still, all you can hear is silence.

This is the experience that deaf individuals who have missed auditory station announcements will encounter. An experience full of uncertainty, anxiety, and vulnerability as they are left on station platforms – unsure as to what information that other passengers have received.

These situations result in deaf passengers looking for the closest information board to understand the situation and if their journey has been impacted.

To combat these stressful situations faced by passengers, experts at the University of Amsterdam are currently working on AI technology, which will allow sign language to be presented via an avatar that can translate sentences and instructions into animations.

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The power of sign

The project, which is currently at the prototype stage, sees the development of an avatar that can translate simple sentences and instructions into animations.

Prior to involvement in the rail industry, the avatar was tested by healthcare professionals and patients who were unable to bring their interpreter with them into Covid-19 isolation wards. This technology allowed deaf patients to have sentences signed to them by the avatar such as “where are you feeling pain”?

The project is part of SignLab Amsterdam – a cross facility research lab at the University of Amsterdam, which aims to develop technology to translate text into sign language using animated avatars – who also want to further develop this technology to support parents of deaf children and assist in airport environments.

Although the technology is making headway in its development, its aim is not to replace sign language interpreters, but to aid and assist deaf individuals where situations are not feasible for a human interpreter to be present.

Awareness and understanding are very welcome side effects of implementing and using this technology.

Dr Floris Roelofsen, associate professor at the university’s institute for logic, language and computation, and founder of SignLab, began exploring this area of study after his daughter was born deaf, which saw him learning sign language to communicate with her.

He hopes this project will not only assist deaf passengers in a variety of environments but will also heighten awareness of the situation: “It raises awareness and understanding of this phenomenon. The awareness and the understanding of this situation, among the general population, seems to be very low.

“In the Netherlands, around 8% of the population have disabling hearing loss. I think even the people who have disabling hearing loss think that they're the only ones, whereas, in fact, it's a huge group.”

Roelofsen believes that the nascent technology would help break down barriers and lessen the isolation that deaf people and hard of hearing people experience.

“Awareness and understanding are very welcome side effects of implementing and using this technology,” he adds. “Governments, companies, and anyone providing services should take these passengers into account, certainly governments. If they're providing a service that is paid out of tax money that is also paid by deaf people, then they should have equal access to those services.”

Credit: SignLab Amsterdam

Current railway trials 

The technology is currently being discussed with the Dutch railway company, NS, which has its own passenger app that updates passengers with platform changes, delays, and other announcements.

Although the company has its own apps that provide passengers with information, last-minute changes are not always updated instantly which sees information being presented to passengers in an audio format.

These last-minute messages are the area that Roelofsen wishes to focus on: “It’s the last-minute messages that we want to translate and then generate. When there is an announcement at the train station, they would get a translation on their phone in sign language.”

“There would be a buzzer, indicating that there is a new message. That way they would be up to date on information that was coming in, which couldn't have been made available through more standardised written text.”

With this technology, we could provide more specific information for deaf passengers.

Alongside the last-minute announcements, another area of focus is looking into when trains get stuck or stop on tracks. In this situation, passengers need to know why the train is stuck and not proceeding, which generally sees announcements being made over the onboard tannoy system.

Roelofsen hopes that as the technology develops, situations like this will see deaf passengers being alerted via the app and told what is happening.

“When the tannoy is used to give this information, there are standardised messages that also appear on screens in the train, but those are very generic messages – they don't have very specific information,” he explains.

“With this technology, we could provide more specific information for deaf passengers about how long the delay is, what the cause is, how long it'll say stationary, or if there's any advice.”

The HydroFLEX team talks about the train’s development and testing.

Stressful rail travel: Naomi’s experience

PhD student Naomi Smart has been deaf since birth on her right side, which has resulted in her relying on lip reading and captions going about her day-to-day life.

However, due to announcements in railway stations being primarily auditory, this can result in her missing important announcements. This has caused Naomi to alter the way she travels to ensure announcements are not missed.

“It makes me really anxious travelling as a deaf person, and I think that's an experience that's shared by a lot of deaf people particularly in rail travel because things do change,” she explains.

“If I know I'm going to be travelling somewhere by train, I won't read a book because I'll be looking around. I won't listen to music because I could miss something. I'm sort of on edge every time I'm in a train station because I really want to make sure I don't miss anything.”

Naomi Smart wants more accessible rail travel for passengers with hearing disabilities

The development of this technology aims to assist passengers such as Naomi to ensure they have a stress-free, relaxing travel experience without the worry of missing audio-based announcements.

Discussing the technology Smart says: “I think it's great. It's really important and I think above anything else, it's really nice to have that sort of visibility, and being considered and being thought about.”

With 11 million people in the UK being deaf or hard of hearing the question is raised as to why more inclusive technology or services have not been included sooner within the rail environment. Issues of funding, outdated systems and technological advances only occurring within the last few years are key players when it comes to this discussion, but Smart states that in her experience the deaf community are often seen as a minority.

“Quite often, in my experience, I find that the deaf community and disabled people are often expected to just sort of cope. We're seen as a minority, so we don't fit with the norm and we're expected to just make it work.”

“Something that I've often noticed is that the emphasis is often on me to make things work for me. Particularly with travelling, I think a lot of deaf and disabled people find that people expect you to be travelling with someone. I often have people saying: “Well why don't you just take someone with you.” Why can't I just have an independent train journey on my own without someone else being there?”

As a deaf traveller, I want to go and take a train and not be worried. I would like it to be fully accessible.

Looking to the future, Smart hopes that she will be able to take a train and for it not to be a stressful, anxiety-inducing experience where she has to pre-plan the entire journey, but something that she can look forward to and enjoy.

“As a deaf traveller, I want to go and take a train and not be worried. I would like it to be fully accessible. I would like to be able to know that with any announcements I would also be able to maybe read or have a sign language interpretation. I think equal access is the main thing. I would like to be reassured and know that I'm going to be able to access everything that a hearing person does.”

“I know we're a minority, but we exist, we're here, and we deserve an accessible public service.”

Main image: Alstom’s Coradia iLint was the world’s first passenger train powered by hydrogen fuel cell. Credit: Alstom