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Yohei Sasakawa
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The Nippon Foundation Launches World’s First Online Sign Language Learning Game SignTown (1) [2021/10/22]
The entry page of the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown launched by The Nippon Foundation on September 22, 2021.

The Nippon Foundation has officially launched the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown developed in collaboration with The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Google and Kwansei Gakuin University.

The launch was announced at a press conference on September 22 which came on the eve of the International Day of Sign Languages on September 23, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2017, as a day to call for the recognition and importance of sign language.

With the support of artificial intelligence (AI)-based sign language recognition, SignTown is an online game in which players are placed in a fictional town where sign language is the official medium of communication.

Since the launch of the beta version in May this year, over 8,500 people in Japan and Hong Kong have used the site, leading to various improvements based upon their feedback, paving the way for the official launch.

In my opening remarks at the media event, I noted that Japan has ratified the 2006 U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “governments are to recognize sign language as an official language in the Constitution and/or special legislation, ensure professional interpreter services, and guarantee education to deaf people in their sign language.”

But in reality, Japan has a long way to go to reach that stage.

“Making more people conversant in sign language would lower barriers to employment of persons who are deaf and hard of hearing,” I said.

I was followed by Ms. Ikumi Kawamata, a staff member of The Nippon Foundation, who is deaf. She played a central role in the foundation’s collaboration with CUHK, Google and Kwansei Gakuin University, which is based in Nishinomiya, western Japan, in initiating and developing the SignTown project.

In her presentation, she used sign language with spoken interpretation to provide background on sign language and an overview of the SignTown project. She explained that 5% of the world’s population has some degree of hearing loss and that 70 million people−close to 1% of the world’s population−use sign language.

Ms. Kawamata explained that, like a spoken language, sign language enables people to convey and understand emotions and nuances that are lost when communicating by written text alone. For these people, sign language is more than just a means of communication, it embraces culture and manners and is an integral part of their identity.

We were then joined by popular 19-year-old YouTuber Chloe of Yurima Girl, who is deaf and fluent in Japanese sign language, who demonstrated SignTown. After setting the camera to synchronize AI recognition, she chose the module for Hong Kong sign language and learned signs that would be useful for ordering in a café and checking into a hotel.

Ms. Chloe commented: “The site is enjoyable to use and the side-by-side replay function is particularly helpful. This is the first time I have seen sign language recognition and was impressed by the technology.” She is interested in traveling to other countries and hopes that SignTown will be expanded going forward to include more countries’ sign languages.

(To be continued)

Speaking at a press conference to release the world’s first multi-language online sign language learning game SignTown on September 22, 2021.

A screen shot of SignTown sign language recognition.

Ms. Ikumi Kawamata of The Nippon Foundation uses sign language with spoken interpretation to provide an overview of the SignTown project.

Popular YouTuber Chloe of Yurima Girl demonstrates SignTown.