Mobile Sign Language Startup Not Tone-Deaf to Ann Arbor Area’s Promise

When Mobile Sign Language Systems won an Ann Arbor Spark business plan competition last summer, and as a result got incubator space and other services, the University of Michigan-spawned startup was able to survive a crucial year of development.

“I don’t think that our business would have been moving in the direction it’s going if we had not won that competition,” says Mobile Sign Language Systems CEO Jason Gilbert.

Last month’s news that startup Ambiq Micro was moving to what it considers greener engineering pastures in Texas has people talking, again, about what can be done to stop the brain drain from Michigan. But the case of Mobile Sign Language shows, at least, that some Michigan efforts at nurturing local talent may be paying off.

The company’s aim is to create a smart-phone app that will translate spoken words into sign-language video in real time. As a first (baby) step toward that goal, it will release its first product—an app that will show parents how to communicate with their prelingual babies using simple sign language words—either just before, or just after, the holidays.

Gilbert and cofounder Judy Shau-yuh Yu began working on their project around the end of 2006. But Gilbert’s journey toward this moment really began about 13 years ago, when he volunteered to become a missionary for his church and went to a deaf congregation in California.

Gilbert did not know sign language at all when he started at the congregation, but he spent a couple of years there “completely immersed in deaf culture.” After he did learn to sign, he jumped directly into interpreting for the deaf. So, later, when he began developing his app, he did so not only steeped in the mechanics of interpreting for the deaf, but also with great first-hand knowledge of the way the deaf and hard-of-hearing view themselves.

“Many consider themselves deaf with a capital D,” Gilbert says. “They consider it to be part of their identity. It’s their culture. They don’t see it as a disability at all. And sign language is its own distinct language. It has its own grammar and syntax. It’s not just a manual form of English. In fact, the grammar is very different from English. And they take a lot of pride in being deaf and in having their own distinct culture. It’s a very close-knit, a very tight community.”

That is why Gilbert made sure that he involved the deaf community in development of his … Next Page »

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