JAM Media showcases its ASL project Zaki Signs | kidscreen.com

Kids are less engaged when they don’t see or hear themselves on screen. So naturally, that’s a barrier for millions of hard-of-hearing children around the world. But Ireland’s JAM Media is looking to change all of that with a new motion-capture project called Zaki Signs.

The studio is combining mocap, AI machine learning and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine animation tool to create—in real time—an animated character who provides American Sign Language (ASL) content interpretation.

Traditionally, adapting kids content for deaf viewers has either meant putting captions on screen (not super-helpful for younger children who can’t read yet) or a picture-in-picture setup with an ASL interpreter signing in a corner. And YouTube creators have adopted similar approaches.

But using adult interpreters feels like more of a barrier than a gateway when it comes to engaging kids, says studio owner John Rice. And that’s why JAM decided to focus on turning the human performer into an animated character (named Zaki) on screen.

JAM wants to have Zaki Signs ready to go by end of year, so it’s busy tweaking character designs to be sure the program can capture all the necessary nuances in facial expressions. Ultimately, the studio hopes to develop a product that can interpret in any sign language, not just ASL—and that’s critical, given that there are more than 70 million deaf people worldwide who use 200-plus sign languages, according to the World Federation of the Deaf.

But the number of viewers who would benefit from Zaki is potentially much higher if you also factor in kids with serious hearing loss—around 34 million globally, according to the World Health Organization.

JAM has already entertained significant cant interest from broadcasters and producers with large back catalogues of programming they’d like to make more accessible for this audience. “The reaction to Zaki so far has been out of this world,” says Rice. “We want to make it easy for producers to remove barriers to their content and create a bridge to reach deaf viewers.”

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