Simply put: the glove that will help non-verbal people communicate.
Have you ever heard the saying: 'Women are much better at multi-tasking than men'? Well if you ever need evidence to support that theory Hadeel Ayoub, founder of startup BrightSign is exactly that.
Ayoub is in fact just finishing a PhD, a mother to four children and the founder of startup BrightSign, which is a glove that helps individuals that are non-verbal to communicate. Not originally designed to sign but as more of an interactive art software, BrightSign, after years of research and development, aims to liberate the millions of people who use sign language to have two-way interactions and conversations with everyone.
With the glove being designed as a creative art piece so users aren’t being restricted by paper, Ayoub decided to remove the keyboard and add sensors to the prototype, so it could replicate and understand hand movements.
Presenting her business module at Goldsmiths University, Ayoub came across a number of projects, one of which was for machine learning and social care; ‘Artificial intelligence for social care’ and she decided to take part, as she explained: "Instead of making a new piece of technology I already had this piece which I had been working on for a year, the sensors were very accurate so I said let me just see if I can make it do sign-language because I knew sign language. So we just tried it and I was so surprised to find it was very accurate.”
Ayoub spent the duration of her time training the glove, first to learn user’s gestures, second to learn complete conversations and sentences not just letters and words, and from then was able to make the glove able to have a full conversation. Then it needed to be trained and taught by the users. "This was so it wasn’t only usable via sign language but by people who use their hands to communicate due to other disabilities, or maybe people who had lost the ability to talk.”
Ayoub still treated it as a project, and continued to work on the art project also. She explained: "A lot of the feedback I got was that there are a lot of families and children who really need this kind of technology. There is nothing out there like this for them, and they were really keen to know when it was available and how much for.”
Ayoub went and did some research and found there was a lot of technology out there, which had stopped. "I discovered there had been a lot of technology in this field but nothing had made it commercially because it is really expensive to even get recognition and difficult to take it out of the lab.”
After looking at what had gone wrong for previous companies, Ayoub identified the problems that needed facing: cost, mobility and customisation.
The fact that the gloves needed to be personalised was a huge factor for Ayoub as she said: "Disability comes in different combinations, and some people can’t even sign.”
From here she put together a research proposal, presented it and went forward with the project. Now Ayoub has around 11 or 12 different prototypes she has made from all the research that she has done to develop the product further. "Sometimes it is easy to identify what the problem is, so I can rectify it and move to the next level – like structured studies.”
Two of these studies have been carried out so far, one with autistic boys which was very significant because from this study, the whole design changed. Ayoub explained: "They wanted to take it off a lot and so I had to add a button, and more importantly had to make it waterproof. The other thing I did here was to make the hardware removable so I added a little pocket so the glove could be washed.”
The second study was completed a year later with different disabilities such as cerebral palsy, stroke survivors and down-syndrome who were all non-verbal, Ayoub explained: "They all tried to communicate but couldn’t speak and all had severe physical disabilities, so they were signing sometimes with their own sign language and as long as they were consistent they were able to communicate.”
"For some it was the very first time their families were able to hear them, so it was an amazing experience for everyone,” Ayoub added that, this really put it in perspective for her.
THE next step
There is still one last study BrightSign needs to complete to validate its investment, which will wrap up Ayoub’s PhD and startup phase. A lot of testing is still to be done, and has been quite difficult as it is hard to get clearance on minors and especially with disabilities. However, the final study will be conducted with the Council of Essex, who have a funded project for technology that will help students overcome their communication problems in the classroom.
"I was one of the projects they selected, and I have identified four schools within Essex that I can work with and that will be starting in September,” Ayoub said, and between the four schools there will be 20 gloves, for 20 students to use in classroom tailored to each student’s disabilities and preferences. "I have a profile of each student such as sex, colours they like, their age and the gloves are made to be very individual and very personal. So for instance the ones who like characters, or rainbows we designed and then 3D printed them for the gloves.” It was important that the gloves were made fashionably as they didn’t want the children to be conscious of them.
Additionally as they will be used by children, Ayoub made sure that all the hardware is concealed so there is just a tiny screen on the glove. Ayoub expressed that although this is exciting, she is very nervous: "This is my first time working in the public sector, and one of my conditions was that the families got to keep the gloves after the study – which is really important to me because I don’t know how good or bad these gloves will be for them, but even if it solves a little bit of the problem for the kids it’s really not fair to take them back.”
Working with the public sector follows on from Ayoub’s business model to investors, to prove they can still get paid and can find organisations to get approved without the product costing so much. The team has already been in touch with two major assistive technology platforms, who have approved the technology and will be the ones who schools and students go to with requirements, so the technology is suitable and it’s for the right audience.
It is a two year journey, but the concept is approved, now it is a case of just waiting for the product to come on to the market. Ayoub is currently just working through the paperwork: "Eventually it will be so rewarding, it means that when parents first learn about their child’s diagnosis one of the things they will receive is a leaflet on assistive technology, and that is why I want to do this,” she expressed.
One of Ayoub’s business plans is trying to design BrightSign with other technology that is already out there so they can promote each other’s products.
how is flying solo?
As a sole founder Ayoub has found it is even more difficult to prove what she is working on is credible: "I do have a team but I manage them, I am on my own – so that makes it so hard to come across as credible. And a lot of investors prefer founders to come in twos or threes with one male, so maybe that is why I have found it difficult to get the funding I need.”
ON BEING A FEMALE FOUNDER
Ayoub did have a male partner for a few months but found no one would question what he said like they did to her. "They would never ask him twice or to prove anything, and with technology they always addressed him – they never thought it was me. Eventually that is why it didn’t work between us, I ended up doing both the technology and business side,” Ayoub explained.
There is a good ratio of male and females on the team and Ayoub said she has never seen a difference within their work. "But sometimes women in the industry are treated differently. Every time I present at a conference I always look at a line up and it is always male dominated.
"Whenever I give a talk, a presentation or a pitch I always make sure I mention women in tech, because it is such a big thing to me. It is so important that we support and promote each other and create a network.”