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The internet could learn a lot from the VR sign language community

I love the smell of technology bringing people together in the morning. Not in that hollow, Zuckerberguian sense: I’m talking about VR communities where deaf and hearing people hang out and learn VR-adapted sign language. The tech isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough to prop up some bridges. You can see them for yourself, thanks to YouTuber and VR documentary maker “Syrmor”.

As explained above, for the time being you can’t fully reproduce American Sign Language or other languages in VR. Even the fancier controllers of Valve’s Index kits don’t let you separate your fingers to produce the Ws or Vs necessary for some words. I like how one of Syrmor’s interviewees puts it, though:

“To be quite honest about it, VR is definitely not the best method to learn sign language at all. It’s still a method to widen people’s views with this beautiful language. We’ve had three people go sign up at a community college to start learning (how to sign)”.

The community has more formally organised as Helping Hands, aiming to “break down the barriers that divide hearing and Deaf Cultures.” They hold weekly events and teaching sessions on servers using a program/platform called VRChat, which you can find more about here.

It’s a lovely avenue of human connection, but I can also imagine linguists frothing over VR sign language. There’s a great example in Syrmor’s video where a currently learning interpreter called Quentin explains that because the W restriction means they can’t use the normal word for ‘world’, they instead mimic the appearance of a portal opening up in VR. They’ve also got different ways of signing words depending on your gear, which is both fascinating and mildly concerning.

I suspect it means those with fancier VR kits can communicate more clearly, which is a wild disparity to come baked into any community, let alone one with the express purpose of bringing people together. I imagine the impact of that pales in comparison to the significance of the community as a whole, but even so. It’s a novel way in which technological limits are shaping the development of a language, and an interesting dynamic to an independently worthwhile project.

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Matt Cox

Staff Writer

Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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