Hand Talk: Revolutionary app for the deaf community

Ronaldo Tenório is building a bridge between hearers and the deaf community in Brazil through his app Hand Talk.

by Julia Migné

Ronaldo Tenório, CEO of Hand Talk. © Hand Talk

Recently nominated as one of 35 most innovative under 35 by the MIT, Brazilian Ronaldo Tenório is the face behind the app Hand Talk. Launched in 2012, the app led by a friendly 3D translator named Hugo, translates Portuguese conversations into sign language.

Knowing that 70% of the Brazilian deaf people cannot read or write in Portuguese, the app is having a massive impact on the way they communicate with hearers. According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people around the globe have hearing problems and struggle to communicate.

Representing an accessible solution, the app was acknowledged around the globe for its innovation and potential. The startup has won a number of awards including the Best Social App of the World in 2013, handed by UN at the World Summit Mobile Award, in Abu-Dhabi.

Ronaldo Tenório talked to INKLINE about how he came up with the idea of Hand Talk and his aspirations for the future.

INKLINE: How did you come up with the idea of Hand Talk?

Ronaldo Tenório:  The idea struck me in 2008 when I was at the university. I was studying social communication and had to do an academic project for one of my class. For that I thought of bringing together two of my passions, technology and communication, to  help people.

From there I started researching about people with disabilities. Even though I don’t have anyone in my family with a disability, I perceived that there was a big problem and that I could have a creative idea that could help them. At the time, my idea was more of theoretical project for computer. I didn’t put it into practice.

Four years later, I decided to give this idea a try and  Carlos Wanderan (TCO) and Thadeu Luz (COO) and I registered for a Startup Challenge. We ended up winning that challenge and received our first investments from the investors part of the jury. That helped us fund Hand Talk and we started hiring people. That’s where it all began.

From left to right: Carlos Wanderan, Hugo, Thadeu Luz and Ronaldo Tenório. © Agencia Nalata

I: Can you tell us more about how the app works and how you chose Hugo as your interpreter.

R: When we started thinking of how to create an virtual interpreter, a virtual translator, we realised that we needed to design a character and Thadeu, who worked with 3D and virtual effects before, told us that we had to create a very caricatured and friendly character that everyone would like. So we started to design him and decided on the clothes he would wear. We even had a meeting just to define his characteristics and then suddenly Hugo was born.

His face is very expressive because the communication in sign language depends a lot on the facial expressions. He also has big hands which helps the communication and we wanted him to be amicable so that everyone from children to older people likes him.


I: What has been the impact of the app so far in Brazil? 

R: The app is for free and we really want people to have it in their house, in their bags, for them to use whenever they need to. But the app is only the top of the iceberg. We offer other solutions for companies that bring us some financial returns as well. The app already has more than one million users but taking into account the other solutions we offer, which all have Hugo as interpreter, we have impacted more than six millions people here in Brazil!

We have solutions for websites, where we put Hugo’s plugin on sites to allow its translation. We also have solutions to translate videos and other tools to help translate in other communication channels used by companies.

I: How is the situation now in Brazil concerning people with hearing disabilities? 

R: Nowadays in Brazil it is estimated that 70% of deaf people cannot understand Portuguese. If they see a text, they are not able to understand what it says. There are different factors that can explain that.

We [hearers] learn to speak and write through the sound we hear and the phonetics and from there we learn to read but deaf people can’t hear so they struggle to learn. There are very few deaf people who are bilingual and can talk in both libras (Brazilian sign language) and Portuguese.

I believe this is going to improve because the information will become more and more accessible so deaf people will be able to link one thing with another, they will start comparing and that will help them get a better understanding of the Portuguese language.

But we are trying to resolve a problem that is much bigger than us, we won’t be able to educate everyone to learn Portuguese but we will manage to pass the information in their language. I always compare being deaf to being a stranger in your own country. It’s really hard for us to imagine.

© Agencia Nalata

I: Do you have any plans to reach schools as well? 

R: In 2014, the Ministry of Education bought tablets to be distributed in public schools and selected free apps to be accessible on those tablets. Hugo comes in the classroom to help the communication for deaf children which is a big issue in the classrooms. Some professors say it’s really difficult to teach to deaf children and hearers at the same time in one classroom.

It’s really challenging because the learning times are different and so often deaf kids abandon school and don’t go to university so they won’t manage to improve the life of their families and it affect their financial opportunities. So we want to bring Hugo to schools and universities to bring more opportunities to the deaf community.

I: What was your biggest challenge when launching Hand Talk? 

R: I had some experience in the design and creation as I was working in an advertisement company before, so I designed the layout of the app. Thadeu did all the 3D and Carlos did the development of the app. The main challenge was that we were doing something that nobody had ever done before and being an innovator is difficult!

It’s like you’re in a forest trying to find a way out and you are creating a path without knowing if you are doing it right. Sometimes you have to go back and take a different path.

Hugo is also available to companies as a plugin and can translate websites. © Hand Talk

I: What do you have in store for Hugo now? 

R: We want to amplify the solutions we offer and bring him to other channels of communication. Now we are able to translate videos, websites and live talk on the app. We want to launch new applications to translate videos automatically, imagine YouTube with Hugo, or on Netflix or in the cinema!

We also want to teach Hugo new languages. He is already learning American Sign Language and we believe that we will be able to launch the app in the USA this year. We hope to launch it in other countries as well but that will depend on the conversations we’ll have and the opportunities in each country.

I: What advice would you give to potential social entrepreneurs? 

R: It’s really incredible to develop a social business because beyond the financial gain you have an impact and you can see the life of people improving thanks to the solution you created. It’s really gratifying! In the world, there are lots of social problems and often governments don’t have the capacity to resolve these problems.

I think startups can provide an opportunity to create solutions for those problems. In our case, we are solving a global problem by starting here in Brazil and expanding soon to other countries. Our business is not b2b (business to business) or b2c (business to consumer), it’s p2p: people to people!

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