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Sign of success: Martinez wins Google Faculty Research Award

Aleix MartinezLittle-known fact: American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most-used language in the United States, aside from English.

The problem, Ohio State University cognitive scientist and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering Aleix Martinez said, is that existing classroom and educational materials provide little feedback for students trying to learn. His research project, “An Online Tutor to Learn American Sign Language,” helps solve this problem.

The concept has since resonated, as Martinez was recently among the winners of the Summer 2015 Google Faculty Research Award for his software work helping to make learning ASL more accessible.

“Learning ASL is often a passive viewing experience, where a student typically observes a video of a sign and is then asked to practice with no feedback given,” Martinez said. “Our project is based on the theory that learning is improved when students receive feedback. “

Through the use of a video camera connected to a personal computer, he said, the ASL machine vision software created within Ohio State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, not only demonstrates signing, but also automatically analyzes the user’s imitation.

Aleix Martinez wins Google Faculty Research Award

“The system will automatically indicate which signing components were correct and which were not,” Martinez said.

For example, the software picks up on hand shapes, movement types, and places of articulation or even facial expression.

How does it work? Martinez said machine vision algorithms detect the face, torso and hands of the user using a webcam or the computer’s camera. Non-rigid structures from motion algorithms then help reconstruct the face, torso and hands of the student in 3D. A graph model then derives a metric for classification of the recovered hand shape, motion and place of articulation, providing useful feedback to the user.

Martinez and his ASL project were selected out of 805 different proposals submitted for the Google Faculty Research Awards by scientists from across 48 countries and six continents. In the end 113 were chosen.

The awards are Google’s annual open call for research proposals on Computer Science and related topics, including systems, machine learning, software engineering, security and mobile. Award grants generally cover tuition and expenses for one year (usually between $40,000 to $70,00) for a graduate student and provide both faculty and students the opportunity to work directly with Google researchers and engineers.

According to Google, “The Faculty Research Awards program plays a critical role in building and maintaining strong collaborations with top research faculty globally. These relationships allow us to keep a pulse on what’s happening in academia in strategic areas, and they help to extend our research capabilities and programs.”

The deadline to apply for the next round of awards is October 15, 2015. To learn more about the awards and how to apply, click HERE.