Assistive technologies

Assistive technology: this is a business worth hearing about!

A Jordanian firm specializing in assistive technologies for the deaf is finding demand for its products all over the world.

By Nada Atieh

According to the World Health Organization, almost 80 percent of the international deaf community can’t read or write, and in Jordan that number is even higher. After learning this, Mind Rockets CEO and founder Mahmoud Darawsheh set out to fill the gap that exists in meeting the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing in the tech world. It offers apps which help users and organizations communicate in real time with the deaf and hard of hearing community using animated avatars that translate text and speech into American and Arabic sign language.

Mind Rockets began life as a high school project for a science and engineering competition in 2008 by then 16-year Darawsheh. After graduating, he continued developing it as a self-funded research project before eventually being joined by Mohammad al-Kilany in 2013, an operations and business development specialist with experience in the IT and construction industry, and a coach and mentor to early-stage startups. Al-Kilany became the cofounder and chairman.

In 2016, Mind Rockets was joined by an angel investor and sponsored by Zain. The startup now employs 12 people and has strategic partnerships with the National Call Center for Deaf Services and the MADA Assistive Technology Center.

What influenced you to begin Mind Rockets and to continue working on it throughout the years?

My teacher, Ali Awdat, encouraged me to focus on people with special needs, especially the deaf communities because there were no technical solutions for them. At that time, speech technology was new. My teacher encouraged me to do things for the deaf community so I got the idea to create a technology and turn it into sign language translation. I was encouraged to participate in a scientific competition called Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a global high school STEM-focused fair, where one of the requirements of the project development was to test the research on people with special needs. When I started to see how much demand existed for this kind of technology, I came up with the idea to create a smart solution and decided to turn it into an application when I graduated.

How do you carry out the translation services?

Currently we specialize in providing, translating, and interpreting online content into sign language using artificial intelligence. We invented a smart 3D avatar to translate common knowledge and text into sign language. The first product we created was an app called mimix. You just download the app, press down on the button and talk. It interprets what you say into sign language. Thirty-five percent of our users use it to learn sign language and when people started using it, we got some very interesting feedback. Mimix is in English. The second app is Al Turjuman and it is mainly used in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It’s the same thing but in Arabic. We have also launched Ramz in collaboration with Zain and are using it to translate the content on Zain’s website. Ramz translates text and speech to Jordan-based Arabic sign language using the avatars. The accuracy is between 70 to 80 percent and with time it will be much higher.

Where is Mind Rocket technology most popular and who do you work with?

About 140,000 people use a version of our products and it’s most popular in the United States, Canada, and in the Arab world including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We are almost finished programming Egyptian sign language and our focus right now is on the Arab world. One of the products we developed is a website interpreter which we are applying with several parties in the UAE government. The Ministry of Community Development is employing our technology to make their website accessible to the deaf community as well. Another project we are working on is customizing solutions for certain industries. For example, with the national call center of the deaf in Saudi Arabia, we developed a pharmacy app. So if a deaf person comes to a pharmacy in Saudi Arabia, they can get their prescription, ask the pharmacist questions, and understand what questions they’re asked. We’re also developing customized solutions for organizations.

We are also going to start targeting the United States and United Kingdom because we’re finishing the British sign language as well.

How do you stay ahead of the competition?

We have almost no competition in the Arab world for what we’re currently doing with the organizations, making them accessible in Arabic and American sign language. There’s a competitor in Brazil but they’re working on Portuguese sign language and not in the field of making content available for websites and Facebook pages. The only thing they compete with us on is the mobile apps but as a technology company that is focused on spreading the service of automated sign language, we are the pioneers and until now we don’t have any competition in this field. As for mobile apps, we love the competition because it helps us make improvements and meet more international standards. Competition is healthy and a blessing in disguise.

How are you developing your content to help more deaf people?

Around one month ago we launched a new service called Contact Us. If the deaf person has a specific question that they cannot find an answer to when visiting a website, they can contact us by recording their question in sign language. It will get to us and we will write it out as a script, send it to the organization, get the answer and give it to the user in sign language. It takes up to 48 hours to reply but the average reply takes one hour depending on the response of the organization itself. We are interested in this feature because it helps us open new vacancies for deaf people. As a service, we’ll need to employ deaf people who can read and write but we can also train them to do that.