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Kara Technologies: Increasing accessibility for the Deaf

Initiative type:
Start-up
Sector:
Digital Tech; Social Enterprise
Website:
UniServices Contact:

Opportunity

From emergency announcements to online banking, movies to social media, people must navigate huge amounts of information to live a full life. For Deaf people, however, not only can speech be incomprehensible, text also poses challenges for many.

Because most Deaf children are born to hearing parents, many of whom can’t provide them with adequate daily communication, a significant portion of these children fail to develop essential language skills in early life. This often results in Deaf adults having lower reading abilities than their hearing counterparts.

Expressive sign language avatars

Kara Technologies is a small start-up with a big vision: making the lives of Deaf people as easy as those of hearing people. To do that, it’s developing digital sign language avatars that will ultimately be able to sign everything Deaf people need or want to know.

“English isn’t Deaf people’s native language. It’s unfair to ask a community to rely on their second language to access vital information.”
Grace Covey, Kara Technologies

“English isn’t Deaf people’s native language,” says Grace Covey, Kara Technologies’ Deaf communications manager and sign language expert. “It’s unfair to ask a community to rely on their second language to access vital information.”

The seed for Kara Technologies was planted in 2016, when Arash Tayebi, then a PhD student in electrical engineering at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, lost his hearing in one ear and was told he had a 30 percent chance of becoming completely deaf.

As he learned New Zealand Sign Language and got to know the Deaf community, Tayebi had the idea of ‘teaching’ digital avatars to sign.

right image
Arash Tayebi
“Without the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and UniServices, we wouldn’t even exist at all – they gave us the confidence to do it and helped connect us to the resources we needed.”
Arash Tayebi,
Kara Technologies CEO

However, Tayebi discovered that most existing avatars’ faces hardly moved. Other avatars had more expressive faces but lacked hands. Both are problems because sign language relies heavily on face and body movements.

Figuring the best way to create impact would be to start a company, Tayebi and some university friends did just that, with Tayebi as CEO. In 2017, the group was the social enterprise winner of the , which enabled it to participate in the incubator programme.

UniServices provided advice and invested in Kara through the University of ƵInventors’ Fund. It also helped connect the company with other investors.

“The support was amazing,” says Tayebi. “Without the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and UniServices, we wouldn’t even exist at all – they gave us the confidence to do it and helped connect us to the resources we needed.”

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Grace Covey and Arash Tayebi in the motion capture studio

Performance

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Kara Technologies team at the NZ Hi-Tech Awards

Tayebi was recognised in the . In 2022, Kara Technologies was highly commended in the , in the Best Hi-Tech Solution for the Public Good category. The same year, Kara raised $1.3 million in seed funding and was accepted into the Startmate Accelerator in Australia and the Alchemist Accelerator in the United States.

The company has created emergency messages, signed children’s books, and an avatar to perform alongside Emma Watkins (Emma Memma), a children’s entertainer and former Wiggles star.

The company’s vision is that signing avatars become ubiquitous – not to replace human sign language interpreters but to fill in the gaps, because human interpreters can’t cover everything.

“This technology would change Deaf people’s lives by making it possible for us to participate in everything without struggling,” says Covey.

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