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PUBLISHED: 4:34 PM on Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Silent world no longer
Juneau man works to bridge gaps in deaf technology
Technology for deaf people to communicate exists, but it's not readily available for deaf people. Local Oliver Bowen, of Juneau, is making that technology a reality. His vision is a world where all language barriers to effective, personal and efficient communications are non-existent.

He's 24-years-old and equipped with self-taught knowledge most people would spend years learning in school. Around six years ago, Bowen started working on specialized software to assist the deaf, and is now founder and master of concepts and programs of the company, Off World Technology. And, in his "off" time he works as a Web designer, graphic artist and contract interpreter.


Photo by Abby LaForce
  From left: Oliver Bowen and Mike Fitzhugh, of Off World Technology.
Currently, along with Mike Fitzhugh, sector chief, they're establishing themselves in Juneau. "We're just getting situated and trying to get all the boundaries set," Bowen said.

Their office is located in the Emporium building at 170 South Franklin St., suite 105. They've had help from fellow glacial silt artist Jason Layton to get situated, he said.

Bowen said Mike gets things done, and he encourages him by being the most consistent supporter of the cause.

"I've known him since he was a kid, his parents were my friends. Most people learn just enough (sign language) to just get by. I said, 'man we've got to do something,'" Fitzhugh said.

He said through the years, he was learning just enough sign language to get by.

"They're super smart, they have acute developed skills. It makes me feel humble," he said concerning deaf people.

"We're attempting to solve that through the speech recognition software, as well

as get people communicating with deaf people as fast as possible by handing out

no cost sign language lessons," he said.

The sign languages can be obtained online at www.learnsignlanguagefast.com. Bowen, who developed the software and maintains the Web site, said over 2000 people worldwide have signed up for lessons.

Bowen, who's parents are both deaf, has always wanted to find a way to help out his family.

"My mom taught me sign language before English. I picked it up really fast, and I had to learn proper English from everyone around me. I'm 4-years old and interpreting for her. I didn't come from a rich family, and I was like 'mom, I want to make it better,'" he said.

My parents went to the state to fill out an application and I noticed right off the bat that if it was a bad situation, my dad would start yelling, 'these guys aren't doing anything for me,' Bowen said.

"And, as a little kid, I'm going, 'I'm supposed to interpret that?'"

"At point of contact, deaf people need to have something to represent themselves. Nothings been solved-it's so frustrating," he said.

Now Bowen is not only solving problems, he's also spreading deaf awareness.

"Our original idea was to develop a software application that would allow a deaf person to walk up to a computer and start signing in sign language and then it would use a camera to look at the person and then be able to translate it to English and then speak it," Bowen said.

"The problem was we had to buy an expensive camera if we wanted to do it because that's what the technology was like at the time. We were looking at other ways to bridge the communication gap, so that's when we started getting into the speech recognition (program)," he said.

The software is a voice recognition program, and it learns by listening. The process is quite simple, with software installed on one's computer; additional tools needed would be a headset.

"The image you see is just a background image, basically you put the headset on and you talk into it, and it scrolls what you're saying into that top bar. And, a deaf individual can communicate too by typing and using the keyboard and it will come out in speech," Bowen said.

Fitzhugh said, it's self-explanatory, as long as I speak fairly clearly and normal, it's 100 percent; it's a rational conversation.

"The software doesn't do (everything) and have all the signs, and isn't designed for an institution," Bowen said.

On a budget sense; however, the software is priced reasonably at $100; most institutional programs cost around $6500 dollars.

"When I finally finished it, I called up my mom and told her to come over. I put the headset on and I said mom, I'm talking to you without using sign language and she's looking at me and it's coming out exactly like I'm saying and she's like 'oh, my god!'" he said.

It actually does bridge the communication gap, Bowen said.

"All the deaf people are in tune, and we're giving them CDs who think it's awesome. We have hundreds of testaments on the Web sites," Fitzhugh said. "We're just trying to get to the little guys."

Support is varied, and Off World Technology is still working diligently to raise business at a higher level.

We called the Legislature-Beth Kerttula, they've responded and we're playing phone tag, but they're right on it, they said.

In addition to the voice recognition software, Bowen is working on other projects such as resolving three party telephone communication.

"He's almost broken the TTY process. It's when a deaf person calls, a hand person calls, and an operator; it's a whole hassle. It's almost to the point where a deaf person picks up a phone and calls directly and says, 'hello,' and we get rid of all the interpreters. There's a definite need for that," Fitzhugh said.

Money generated is being used to complete another software that will basically let any deaf person just walk up to a computer with a camera, start signing and have

the computer speak what the deaf individual is signing out loud, called gesture recognition technology.

"I want it in all the institutions, in the walls, in the computers, everywhere, so they don't have to have a device. So, they could walk up to something and just communicate. Basically, it's taking me and all my experiences and skills as being a child in a deaf and hearing world and putting it into the computer so anybody can access it," he said.

Funds are an issue, and it would take around 10 to 20 thousand dollars to create a mass produced device that would bridge the gap in deaf technology.

"I have fundamental goals, when I look toward the future: I think big. I'm sick of hearing people are leaving town (and) there's no jobs for young people, deaf people. If I can create something that can grow, I have the organizational mindset that can employ lots of people. Somebody has to encourage that kind of activity," Bowen said.

For more information call 364-3473 or visit: www.learnsignlanguagefast.com/aslgenius.html, www.learnsignlanguagefast.com, http://www.offworldtechnology.com/products.html and www.glacialsiltglass.com.


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