This 1979 film examines a Bell Laboratory research project conducted by Kenneth Knowlton and Vivien Tartter. The team devised a way of using 27 points of light placed on an individual’s hands and face to allow the hearing impaired to use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate remotely. The goal was to find a way to take images of the points of light at each end of a conversation so the images “could be coded to the capacity of one telephone line.” Thus ASL, the primary language for most deaf people, could be used to conduct conversations over standard telephone lines, without requiring any greater capacity than a regular phone call.
Knowlton was a prominent figure at Bell Labs for many years and is well represented in other videos here on the AT&T Archive Channel. At the time this film was made Tartter was a linguist at Rutgers University and continues today as a professor at City College in New York.
In 1981, two years after this video, Tartter and Knowlton published a paper in the scientific journal Nature detailing their work and findings at Bell Labs. The article, “Perception of Sign-Language from an Array of 27 Moving Spots,” details the methods and results of the project, including a transcript of a sign language conversation conducted via television using their method. The paper concludes that the “demonstration suggests the possibility of developing a sign language telephone.” A New York Times article about the published piece soon followed and the subject drew attention in newspapers across the country.
While the system the team conceived was never developed into a final, usable technology, it is a fascinating step in the long procession of efforts to find ways for the deaf to use the telephone for communicating, as in 2009 when AT&T received the TDI James C. Masters Promotion Award “for providing innovative products and services that address the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.“