This blog post comes from Hadeel Ayoub, a London-based designer, programmer, and researcher in human computer interactions. Hadeel is the Founder and CEO of BrightSign and the inventor of a smart glove that assists people with hearing impairments to sign and translate with others. Hear how Hadeel’s using technology to change the world at the upcoming Women Rock-IT broadcast on April 22.
I was born into a family of doctors. Everyone expected me to follow suit. Imagine the surprise (or should I say the shock?) when I opted to study design instead. It was the first of many occasions of choosing to go against the current if my heart tells me to do so. Continually fighting these expectations did not always gain me many friends along the way, but eventually united me with scores of other women making an impact, and who also defied the norms set by those around them and created their own paths to success.
While studying architecture, I became fascinated with creating virtual spaces, which in turn lead me to specialize in three-dimensional modeling. Over time, I grew frustrated with the limitations to designer software, all of which restricted our creativity rather than enabled it. All of the available software was highly technical and often needlessly unfriendly to users.
Jumping ship and taking baby steps
I decided to jump ship and study programming. It was finally time for design software to be written by designers, not computer scientists. It was not an easy task to find a university that would accept me into a Master of Science degree with my Bachelor of Arts.
And when I did find one, I moved with my family to London to be closer to my education. This proved to be quite the adventure, especially with four kids. I wrote my first line of code when I was 30, while also being the oldest member of my class. After much frustration, and several tear-filled episodes, I figured out how the computer’s “brain” works. And eventually, I achieved my goal of writing an improved 3D modeling software. I then took that software further by including hand-tracking software, using the computer’s vision.
My dream program was now real. It was fully interactive and allowed me to create art and build models with my hands, bypassing the limitations of classic design tools and the highly technical interfaces, with the air as my canvas.
Taking it a step further … and further
I enjoyed being on the other side of campus – a student again – so I decided to stay on to do a PhD. I wanted to further explore hand tracking, so my research focused on using AI for gesture recognition.
Soon after, I was chosen to represent my university at a global hackathon, hosted by IBM at their headquarters in Seoul, South Korea. The hackathon theme was “Artificial Intelligence for Social Care.” So, I used my existing gesture recognition system and developed a data glove that could translate sign language into vocalized speech. My “hack” work ended up winning the grand prize – and news of my smart glove went viral!
Overnight, my hacked invention was showcased on the BBC, Discovery Channel, and much of the printed press. My inbox was swiftly flooded with emails from parents and teachers, asking how they can get their hands on this “sign language glove.”
Until that point, I treated my hand tracking software as a one-off project and was not aware that there was a need for this kind of technology. I did some initial research and discovered that while there are 230 million people around the world who are non-verbal, only two percent of those millions have access to technology to help them communicate.
This discovery precipitated the second major turning point of my career. Once more, I decided to pivot and become a tech entrepreneur.
Pivoting toward technology for good
I founded BrightSign, a tech startup that specializes in developing assistive technology, which is technology to help people with different abilities to overcome personal challenges. I put together a small team and set off to realize my vision: Together we can help give voice to those who cannot speak.
Since BrightSign’s inception, I have participated in tech accelerators, innovation exhibitions, and entrepreneurship competitions. I have signed up to mentorship programs offering guidance to new founders. I have connected with people going through the same journey and expanded my network into wearable technology and healthcare innovation. All of this helped me refine my skills, successfully run a tech startup and empowered me to dive into the business world.
The BrightSign Glove has launched, and is now being used by many children and adults around the world, to help them communicate in more than 30 languages. Users often share their experiences of “finally able to order their own meal” or “making new friends at the park,” and nothing makes me happier. Feedback like that puts all my hard work into perspective and reminds me why tech for good can create a huge social impact while still providing me fulfillment.
I found passion in learning programming and technology. Now, I wonder why these fields are not easily accessible and are often overlooked as career options for girls and women. And so, I signed up to become a STEM ambassador and joined the iDiscover Inspire! program, introducing innovation into primary school classrooms.
I invite young people to play with my technology. I want to show them first-hand that, one day, they can have a career like mine. I also deliver workshops, to teach adults, who have no background in coding, how to design, program, and build their own interactive wearable technology.
Nowadays, we are surrounded by endless options to upgrade our skills, locally and globally, which are literally a click away. There are thousands of online training resources available to get started with any idea, both paid for and free, such as Cisco’s Networking Academy.
Reflecting on my journey, I realize now that, although I didn’t become the doctor that my family thought I was supposed to be, I still found ways to positively impact many peoples’ quality of life, through my design and technology, by promoting independent living, and by passing that knowledge on so the cycle of learning continues.