Ƶ

ūDzԲ

Feature

Kara Technologies: Signing up for accessibility

11 May 2022
Kara Technologies working to realise its vision of making sign language avatars available anywhere a Deaf person might want to access services or entertainment.

When Arash Tayebi lost his hearing in one ear and was told he had a 30 percent chance of going deaf in his other ear too, it was, as you might expect, life changing. What you might not expect is that it began a process of changing many lives for the better.

Tayebi, who was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease in 2016, when he was a University of ƵPhD student, is co-founder and CEO of , a start-up using digital sign language avatars to make communications of all kinds accessible to the Deaf community.

Now in the process of closing a financing round, with a Series A round in its sights, Kara Technologies is an award-winning start-up with a vision of making sign language avatars available anywhere a Deaf person might want to access services or entertainment.

“We’re here to solve a problem, not just to establish a company,” says Tayebi.

Image
Kara Technologies avatar signing ‘communicate’

The right to access

 When Tayebi lost half his hearing, he noticed there were no Deaf PhD students in his department, electrical engineering. Nor did he know of any Deaf entrepreneurs or investors in New Zealand’s high-tech start-up ecosystem. Deaf people, he realised, face many barriers in accessibility.

While there is more closed captioning on video content than there was years ago, it’s not a complete solution.

“English isn’t Deaf people’s native language,” says Grace Covey, Kara Technologies’ communications manager and sign language expert. Born Deaf, Covey can now hear due to a cochlear implant but still struggles with English, particularly when she encounters new words. “It’s unfair to ask a community to rely on their second language to access vital information,” she says.

 

“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’ communications manager and sign language expert

Though Tayebi is still learning New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), he can relate because he was born in Iran and his native language is Farsi.

“If I watch a movie in French with English subtitles, it’s very hard for me to follow,” says Tayebi.

The problem is compounded for Deaf children born to hearing parents – as over 90 percent are. With little exposure to language in early life, crucial neural pathways fail to develop and many Deaf children start school with no native language at all. These children are likely to always struggle with English, says Covey.

“The average Deaf adult can’t read as well as the average hearing adult – there’s a significant gap. It’s unfair to ask Deaf people to get all their information in written form.”

The information gap is increasing every day because of the explosion of information, says Covey.

“This isn’t about putting human sign language interpreters out of work. Human interpreters are critical to the Deaf community but they’re a limited resource and we want to make the best use of their time. When someone is sick and needs to discuss their medical options with a doctor, nothing can replace a human interpreter. But when someone needs to fill out a form or get a lot of repetitive information, that’s where a sign language avatar could be useful.”

From idea to company

When Tayebi first had the idea to use digital avatars for sign language, his ambition wasn’t to start a company – he just wanted to design a project to help Kelston Deaf Education Centre, now part of Ko Taku Reo | Deaf Education New Zealand. Nor was he intending to develop avatars himself – he knew there were companies working on avatar technology, so he figured he could adapt them for NZSL.

However, Tayebi quickly discovered some companies’ avatars had faces that showed little expression – a problem when facial expressions are an essential part of sign language. Other avatar companies offered more realistic faces but lacked hands.

“So I thought, let’s not follow the others. Let’s come up with a product that would be a good example for others to follow,” says Tayebi.

“In order to solve a problem, step one is to understand as much as possible. We were very lucky to have access to experts in sign language and Deaf culture who could help us understand the gaps and how best to fill them.”
Arash Tayebi, Co-founder and CEO, Kara Technologies

Right from the beginning, Tayebi and his co-founders involved people from the Deaf community.

“In order to solve a problem, step one is to understand as much as possible,” says Tayebi. “We were very lucky to have access to experts in sign language and Deaf culture who could help us understand the gaps and how best to fill them.”

As a University of Ƶstudent, Tayebi also knew he had access to resources such as the programme at the and the possibility of financial help through UniServices and the University of ƵInventors’ Fund. He figured the best way for his fledgling company to grow its impact was to grow financially.

Tayebi started off getting advice from UniServices about how to establish a company and seek investment. UniServices was impressed with Kara’s clear vision and the scalability of its solution, says Benjamin Pearson, the commercialisation manager working with the company.

“Besides the cash we put in as an early investor, we also helped connect Kara with more people in the ecosystem for other commercial and investment leads.”

“It was our first time asking for money from investors and it was hard at the beginning to understand investment mechanisms and tools,” says Tayebi. “UniServices helped us understand this area and how to communicate our vision to investors.”

Next steps

image
Grace Covey in motion capture suit with Arash Tayebi

Kara has already produced a diverse suite of avatars, signed children’s books and a range of videos such as a recent one . It has been recognised many times for its innovative work, from being the social enterprise winner of the in 2017 to being named a 2022 finalist in the , in the Best Hi-Tech Solution for the Public Good category.

Currently, the company is concentrating on making it possible to create sign language emergency messaging immediately by using a set of pre-recorded motion-captured animations. This would make it possible to relay time-critical information even in the middle of the night when a human sign language interpreter might not be available.

“At the moment, if there’s an earthquake or tsunami, word goes out through radio, TV, phone calls – but the Deaf community misses out,” says Covey.  “An avatar could provide basic information immediately to fill in the gap until the government can put on a news conference a few hours later with a human interpreter to provide the details.”

The bridging round of financing Kara is currently working on is aimed at validating its emergency notification technology as well as at investigating the overseas market as it looks to expand beyond NZSL.

Longer term, the company aims to make money by charging companies and organisations to make their content and services accessible. It will never charge Deaf people to access signed content, says Covey.

Estimates of NZSL users vary significantly, from about 4,000 for whom it is a first language to more than 20,000 – perhaps as many as 30,000 – who have some knowledge of it. However, these numbers are less important than the principle of accessibility, says Covey.

“It’s about helping people access vital information daily, enabling them to create their own pathways and make their own choices because they have access to full information. It’s a human right.”

“The market size is not the number of users,” says Tayebi. “Next time you cross the street, press the button for pedestrians. You may feel that there is a vibration. That vibration is for people who are deaf and blind. The number of deaf-blind people in New Zealand is very small. But the market size is every intersection in New Zealand.”

An accessible future

Kara envisions a future where around the world, TV shows, bank machines, travel websites, online registration forms, live theatre, social media, gaming, and virtual reality technologies are all equipped with sign language avatars.

Avatars would help Deaf children born to hearing families by giving them regular access to proficient signers. They would also help adults like Tayebi who are learning to sign.

“An avatar can repeat a word a thousand times, not get tired and not judge you,” says Tayebi.

“This technology would change Deaf people’s lives by making it possible for us to participate in everything without struggling,” says Covey. “Making the daily life of a Deaf person as easy as that of a hearing person – that’s our goal.”

Interested in investing in or partnering with Kara Technologies?