Researchers in Scotland are designing a software program which instantly translates sign language into type which can be read on a computer screen.
The technology, the first of its kind in the world, could be available within a year and stands to fundamentally change the way deaf people communicate and help them succeed in the jobs market, the scientists said.
A normal camera is used to record the user's hand signals, which are imported into the computer program and translated into written text so that the person the user is conversing with can read it without needing to understand sign language.
Researchers now hope to develop the basic program, known as the Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT), into an "app" which could be used on PCs, laptops, tablets, smart phones and other portable devices
The program is being developed by Aberdeen University scientists through a spin-out company called Technabling, and could be used with a range of different sign languages including British Sign Language (BSL) which is used by up to 70,000 people in Britain.
Because there are limits on the ability of BSL to express certain concepts or terms, such as technical words and phrases used in particular job sectors, the program can also be taught to recognise an individual's personal vocabulary.
Dr Ernesto Compatangelo, computing science lecturer and founder of Technabling, said: "The aim of the technology is to empower sign language users by enabling them to overcome the communication challenges they can experience, through portable technology.
“One of the most innovative and exciting aspects of the technology is that it allows sign language users to actually develop their own signs for concepts and terms they need to have in their vocabulary, but they may not have been able to express easily when using BSL."
Dr James Christie, one of the researchers who is partially deaf and a sign language user, added: "The PSLT lowers the communication barrier between people born deaf, people who have lost their hearing very early in life, people who are losing their hearing, and hearing people – especially in face-to-face situations such as tutorials and group work."