Sometimes it takes a young innovator’s fresh eyes and outsider’s perspective to come up with a unique solution to a long-standing problem. Grand Junction, Colorado, native Ryan Patterson did just that when, at age 17, he invented the American Sign Language Translator.
Born in 1983, Patterson displayed an early interest in electronics and engineering. This prompted his parents and teachers to seek a mentor for him when he was still in elementary school who would be able to answer all of his complicated questions. He was introduced to John McConnell, retired from Los Alamos, New Mexico, who had spent his career working as a particle physicist for the Los Alamos Laboratory. He and Patterson spent every Saturday together for the next seven years, exploring electronics, engineering and other technical fields.
McConnell encouraged Patterson to enter scientific competitions in order for him to challenge himself and put his growing body of knowledge into practice. He did so, and in the process invented such devices as the Sleuthbot, a computer controlled search robot, and an autonomous robot. When he was a high school junior Patterson sought a new project that could really help people. He was sitting in a Burger King restaurant one afternoon when the idea for the sign language translator hit him.
Patterson watched as a group of deaf people entered the restaurant and began communicating their orders in sign language to a speaking translator who would then tell the cashier what they wanted to eat. He thought there must be some way to make such simple everyday communications easier for deaf or non-speaking individuals so that they could be more independent.
The idea drove Patterson to learn as much as he could about the deaf community, about sign language, and about computer programming languages. The system he had in mind would be more complex than any he had attempted in the past. He was up to the challenge. Within a year, Patterson had a prototype for the sign language translator, a system that translates a signer’s motions into easy-to-read words via a handheld, wirelessly connected display.
The system includes a soft, leather glove outfitted with ten sensors that a signer wears on his or her hand, and a small computer that associates each hand position with a corresponding letter. By finger-spelling words using the standard American Sign Language alphabet, each letter would be transmitted to and captured by the processing unit, which then turns the signal into a clearly visible, digital letter on a small liquid crystal display. The translation time for each letter is less than a half a second. The device also includes customization ability; each user can “train” the system to recognize his or her individual signing style.
Patterson designed the system with the idea that it might also be useful for individuals experiencing temporary or permanent communication difficulty because of disease such as throat cancer, afflictions such as cerebral palsy, or due to the after-effects of stroke. Patterson obtained a provisional patent on the system and made improvements to it, such as incorporating speech dictation software that enables the system to “speak” a word aloud once it has been spelled.
Patterson’s remarkable invention earned him the Grand Award in the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, followed by his winning top honors in Intel’s 2002 Science Talent Search, where he was awarded a $100,000 scholarship. He was also first-place winner in the individual category at the 2001 Siemens Westinghouse Science & Technology Competition; this earned him yet another $100,000 scholarship. He also received a full-ride Boettcher Foundation scholarship, collected the Junior Nobel Prize in Sweden, and met President Bush–twice. In all, Patterson’s invention and his other academic achievements helped him earn more than $400,000 in scholarship cash.
He entered the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2002 and completed his BS in electrical engineering and computer engineering in 2006. While in college, Patterson worked on such projects as a highly sensitive, indoor global positioning system that might aid people with cognitive disabilities by allowing loved ones to monitor their movements from afar, and a system that would allow consumers to remotely change the functions or settings of any household system or device.