Gallaudet’s Legacy of Innovation Continues with a Breakthrough Helmet

by Ethan Kim
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Deaf communication technology

Feeling a sense of envy was inevitable for Shelby Bean.

Having served as a deaf football player at Gallaudet for four seasons, Bean navigated the intricacies of the game by using American Sign Language to communicate defensive strategies, tackling challenges unheard of by his hearing counterparts. Now, as an assistant coach, he witnessed a groundbreaking moment this season at an institution renowned for its milestones: the unveiling of innovative technology that enables in-helmet visual play displays for quarterback Brandon Washington—a leap forward that also coincided with the team’s inaugural win of the season.

“The hurdles we face are numerous,” Bean acknowledged. “Our goal is always to create an even playing field by any means at our disposal.”

For over 100 years, Gallaudet has been dedicated to balancing the scales for the Deaf and hard of hearing. The helmet, a collaboration with AT&T conceived 129 years post Paul Hubbard’s invention of the football huddle, epitomizes the university’s role as a crucible for Deaf technology with global ramifications.

A helmet innovated by Gallaudet University in partnership with AT&T benefits deaf and hard-of-hearing football players. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

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Gallaudet University’s latest technological advancement in football helmets marks another chapter in its storied pursuit of Deaf and hard-of-hearing technological solutions, with potential effects extending beyond the field.

Report by AP Washington correspondent Sagar Meghani

The legacy of innovation extends beyond athletics, tracing back to the first Dictionary of American Sign Language in 1965. Since then, the institution has led advancements such as campus-wide video phones and the creation of translation and ASL recognition software. Efforts are ongoing to refine closed captioning technology.

The helmet’s underlying technology promises utility for professions such as firefighting and construction and aims to broaden job access and daily living for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“Gallaudet University stands as the epicenter of the Deaf community,” expressed junior offensive lineman John Scarborough via an interpreter, utilizing ASL. “We are writing history here. Such initial steps are often precursors to substantial future milestones. The pride amongst my teammates over the history we’ve crafted, and the anticipated effect on millions of deaf individuals, especially children worldwide, is immense.”

The helmet’s technology operates at the touch of a button on a tablet from the sidelines, sending plays instantly via 5G to a discreet screen inside the quarterback’s helmet. Since its first game application in early October, Gallaudet’s head coach Chuck Goldstein has been inundated with inquiries from youth sports coaches and parents eager to adopt the technology.

Goldstein, leading the team since 2010, emphasizes that the prototype, which received a one-time NCAA waiver for use, is just the beginning of its journey toward potential widespread adoption.

“This is merely the initial phase,” Goldstein observed. “This experiment has demonstrated its potential to revolutionize the experience not just for our team but for deaf and hard-of-hearing athletes everywhere.”

During practice at Hotchkiss Field, Gallaudet football assistant coach Bob Miller, alongside quarterback Gabe Segovia and running back Joshua Kelley, engages in strategy discussion through ASL. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

Visionaries and advocates for the technology envision its integration into everyday scenarios, far surpassing more complex visual systems like Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens.

Spencer Montan, of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, contemplates the application of such technology in firefighting, whereas his superior, Gary Behm, sees it as a visual substitute for radios in various noisy work environments.

“Our focus is predominantly on enhancing employment,” Behm conveyed through an interpreter. “Imagine a deaf individual on a construction site or inside a towering building. This technology could revolutionize how they communicate with colleagues on different floors.”

Closed captioning, a widely recognized innovation originating from the Deaf community, along with video phones first seen at Gallaudet in 2004, have paved the way for mainstream communication apps. There is a collective hope that the helmet technology will follow a similar trajectory into everyday use.

“Sports can catalyze societal transformation,” stated Brice Christianson, an ASL interpreter and CEO of P-X-P, advocating for inclusivity in sports through interpretation. “We aim for this to serve as a catalyst for normalization and widespread acceptance — this is merely scratching the surface.”

Jason Altmann, COO of P-X-P, has observed numerous innovations fail due to the lack of involvement from the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Their input was crucial in the development of this helmet, with AT&T’s senior VP of network engineering and operations Corey Anthony highlighting the engagement of Gallaudet’s players, coaches, and the company’s own Deaf employees from the project’s inception.

Athletic director Warren Keller finds Gallaudet’s latest contribution as bridging yet another communication divide, in line with its tradition since the huddle’s inception in 1894.

“It’s truly inspirational,” Keller remarked through an interpreter. “We take our responsibility seriously regarding what we offer our student-athletes and to the world.”

For Bean, it seems apt for him and his team to walk in the footsteps of 19th-century innovators.

“The potential benefits of this extend well beyond the Deaf community, enhancing life for everyone,” he expressed. “The possibilities are limitless. This innovation can reach far and wide.”

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Deaf communication technology

What is the latest technological innovation at Gallaudet University?

Gallaudet University, in collaboration with AT&T, has developed a groundbreaking football helmet that displays plays visually inside the helmet for quarterbacks, which can also have applications beyond the sports field in noisy work environments.

How does the new helmet technology work?

The helmet integrates a nearly transparent screen that receives visual play calls sent over 5G from a tablet on the sideline, which the quarterback can see inside their helmet.

What is the historical significance of Gallaudet University’s new helmet?

The helmet represents the latest in a series of technological innovations by Gallaudet University designed to aid the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It builds on the university’s history of creating the football huddle and continues its tradition of communication technology development.

Could the helmet technology be used outside of football?

Yes, the technology has potential applications in various professions such as firefighting, construction, and other fields where communication in noisy environments is crucial.

Is the helmet available for widespread use?

As of the report, the helmet is a prototype and was used under a one-game waiver by the NCAA. The intention is to seek approval for its broader use in the future.

Who contributed to the development of the helmet technology?

The development was a joint effort involving Gallaudet’s coaches and players, AT&T’s engineering team, and input from AT&T’s Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.

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