An IBM avatar translates the spoken word 'performance' into the corresponding sign from British Sign Language. The new technology allows a person giving a presentation to have a digital figure projected behind them signing what they are saying. ((IBM))

IBM has developed a computer program that can translate the spoken word into sign language and then sign it out using an an animated digital figure, or avatar.

The system, unveiled on Wednesday, could pave the way for commercial technology that allows presenters or educators to give lectures that can be accessible to the deaf when nolive sign language interpreterisavailable.

Developed at IBM labs in Hursley, England, SiSi uses British Sign Language (BSL), which an estimated 55,000 people in the U.K. use as their first language, the company said.

Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM Hursley's master inventor, said the technology has the potential to make life easier for the deaf community by providing automatic signing for television, radio, the internet and voicemail transcription when using mobile devices.

IBM cautions that the Say It Sign It (SiSi) system is still a prototype and is not yet available commercially, though IBM expects to expand the product to use other sign languages. It also hopes to include it as a feature in the deaf-accessibility products of other vendors.

SiSi first converts the spoken word into text using speech recognition software and then converts those words into sign language, which are then displayed by an onscreen avatar. The use of a character, instead of text as used in close captioning, allows deaf users to see the words in a visual manner more familiar to them.

Guido Gybels, the director of new technologies at the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID), welcomed thesystem as a good first step to bringing services and products to a disenfranchised segment of the population.

"There is clearly still a long way to go before such prototypes become fully capable, off-the-shelf products, but it is encouraging to see that mainstream research is contributing to this objective of a more inclusive society,"he said in a statement.