Completing the communication cycle – how a mentoring experience began a journey into machine learning and avatars to create a new sign language interpretation tool.

Global Disability Innovation Hub, Harrison Kamau
Sept. 23, 2022
Kenya

22-year-old Elly Savatia’s journey in innovation started quite early in his high school years.  

“I remember seeing a student who used crutches almost fall while using the stairs, and I thought of a prototype of a staircase that would reconfigure itself into a ramp or stairs based on the need.” Says Savatia.  

This was the moment that shaped his early career trajectory, as a social entrepreneur. One more encounter with students at a deaf school in Kenya cemented his resolve to find new solutions for disabled people and the wider community. 

Savatia vividly remembers interacting with deaf students in 2019 during one of his volunteer sessions with the Young Scientists Kenya (YSK) programme in Kenya, Migori County. He was tasked with mentoring high school students in STEM and robotics. During this visit, he remembers the challenge of trying to communicate with the students who were eager to learn - but without proficiency in sign language Savatia was unable to communicate effectively. As an innovator, he decided that he would use his skills and social capital to overcome this communication barrier using technology, the power of machine learning (AI), and 3D avatar tools. This was the birth of Veezaviz. 

From the onset, Veezaviz set out to bridge communication barriers. Savatia and his team created a new generation of technology that enables two-way communication among deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people. They make this possible by using machine learning-based sign language interpretation and automated avatar sign language generation.  

“Innovate Now was a redeeming quality because it gave us a community when we were building at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the greatest lessons we learnt was that when you are building solutions for persons with disabilities, build with them" Says Savatia. 

Initially, they set out to ensure that their product was helpful to people with hearing disabilities. With support from Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub’s Innovate Now Accelerator (Africa’s first accelerator focused on Assistive Tech), they were able to access live labs where they had an opportunity to work with the end users directly while getting critical feedback. During this stage, they realised that their creation would only solve one side of the equation.  

This caused  Savatia to go back to the drawing board, bridging the gap through software that takes advantage of already loaded sign language data ito utilise sign language in front of the app's live camera, and deciphering through text. 

This is a game changer because the communication cycle is now complete. People with hearing impairment can use sign language to communicate, and others can communicate without the need for an interpreter.   

 
“My involvement in Innovate Now has been an insightful and inspiring experience. Building the technology was not as easy as it first seemed. The product we have built and are building incorporates both 3D infrastructure and software development, which meant we had to be at our expert best in both worlds. We have progressed and come this far despite facing algorithm optimization challenges.”  Daniel Moenga, Chief Technical Officer  

Moving forward, Veezaviz would like to scale and accommodate different sign language dialects. The goal is to put the tool into the hands of the deaf community, into the hands of the hearing community. This will enable two-way communication at any point, be it at a doctor’s appointment, at school, or even at a restaurant. 

This great leap is a testament of what the Innovate Now Accelerator set to achieve. Using digital Assistive Technology to support the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in everyday life through offering digital assistive technology solutions across education, healthcare, livelihoods, and other sectors. 

Innovate Now is a partnership between Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub), ICT Norway Norad and Kilimanjaro Blind Trust to recruit the next generation of cutting-edge disability innovators to drive Africa as a technology powerhouse. Building on AT2030 funding by UK aid, Innovate Now’s next phase will focus on Digital AT and Entrepreneurship.