Center Papers

Attitudes toward signing avatars vary depending on hearing status, age of signed language acquisition, and avatar type

The use of virtual humans (i.e., avatars) holds the potential for interactive, automated interaction in domains such as remote communication, customer service, or public announcements. For signed language users, signing avatars could potentially provide accessible content by sharing information in the signer’s preferred or native language. As the development of signing avatars has gained traction in recent years, researchers have come up with many different methods of creating signing avatars. The resulting avatars vary widely in their appearance, the naturalness of their movements, and facial expressions—all of which may potentially impact users’ acceptance of the avatars. We designed a study to test the effects of these intrinsic properties of different signing avatars while also examining the extent to which people’s own language experiences change their responses to signing avatars. We created video stimuli showing individual signs produced by 1) a live human signer (Human), 2) an avatar made using computer-synthesized animation (CS Avatar), and 3) an avatar made using high-fidelity motion capture (Mocap avatar). We surveyed 191 American Sign Language users, including Deaf (N = 83), Hard-of-Hearing (N = 34), and Hearing (N= 67) groups. Participants rated the three signers on multiple dimensions, which were then combined to form ratings of Attitudes, Impressions, Comprehension, and Naturalness. Analyses demonstrated that the Mocap avatar was rated significantly more positively than the CS avatar on all primary variables. Correlations revealed that signers who acquire sign language later in life are more accepting and likely to have positive impressions of signing avatars. Finally, those who learned ASL earlier were more likely to give lower, more negative ratings to the CS avatar, but we did not see this association for the Mocap avatar or the Human signer. Together, these findings suggest that movement quality and appearance significantly impact users’ ratings of signing avatars and show that signed language users with earlier age of ASL acquisition are the most sensitive to movement quality issues seen in computer-generated avatars. We suggest that future efforts to develop signing avatars consider retaining the fluid movement qualities integral to signed languages.