Our approach is based upon a novel two stage classification:

Classification stage I: Raw image sequences are segmented in order to extract the shapes and trajectories of the hands in the monocular image sequence. The initial classification stage converts these into a viseme representation (the visual equivalent of a phoneme) taken from sign linguistics:

This HA/TAB/SIG/DEZ notation provides a high-level feature descriptor that broadly specifies events in terms such as hands move apart, hands touch or right hand on left shoulder. This description of scene content naturally generalises temporal events, hence reduces training requirements.

The 5 HA, 13 TAB, 10 SIG and 12 DEZ states we currently use are listed in the table below and are computed as follows:

HA: the relative position of the hands to each other is derived directly from deterministic rules on the relative x and y co-ordinates of the centroids of the hands and their approximate area in pixels.

TAB: the position of the hands is categorised in terms of their proximity to key body locations using the Mahalanobis distance computed from the approximate variance of these body parts gained from contour location.

SIG: the movement of the hands is determined using the approximate size of the hand as a threshold to discard ambient movement and noise. The motion is then coarsely quantised into the 10 categories listed in the table.

DEZ: British Sign Language has 57 unique hand-shapes (excluding finger-spelling) which may be further organised into 22 main groups. A visual exemplar approach is used to classify the hand shape into twelve (of the 22) groups. This is described in more detail in our papers.

  1. Right hand high
  2. Left hand high
  3. Hands are side by side
  4. Hands are in contact
  5. Hands are crossed
  1. The neutral space
  2. Face
  3. Left side of face
  4. right side of face
  5. chain
  6. R Shoulder
  7. L Shoulder
  8. Chest
  9. Stomach
  10. Right Hip
  11. Left Hip
  12. Right Elbow
  13. Left Elbow
  1. Hand Makes no movement
  2. Hand moves up
  3. Hand movesdown
  4. Hand moves left
  5. Hand moves right
  6. Hands move apart
  7. Hands move together
  8. Hands move in unison


  1. 5
  2. A
  3. B
  4. C
  5. F
  6. G
  7. H
  8. I
  9. P
  10. V
  11. W
  12. Y

2persondifferent.png (123473 bytes)The figure shows the features generated by the system over time. The horizontal binary vector shows HA, SIG, TAB and DEZ in that order delineated by grey bands. The consistency in features produced can clearly be seen between examples of the same word. It is also possible to decode the vectors back into a textual description of the sign in the same way one would with a dictionary. The feature vector naturally generalises the motion without loss in descriptive ability. The figure shows the word ‘different’ being performed by two different people along with the binary feature vector produced. The similarity is clear, and the signed words are correctly classified. Linguistic evidence points to the fact that sign recognition is primarily performed upon the dominant hand (which conveys the majority of information) we therefore currently discard the non dominant hand and concatenate HA, TAB, SIG and DEZ features together to produce a 40 dimensional binary vector which describes the shape and motion in a single frame of video.

Classification stage II: Each sign is modelled as a 1st order Markov chain in which each state in the chain represents a particular set of feature vectors (denoted symbols below) from the stage I classification. The Markov chain encodes temporal transitions of the signer's hands. During classification, the chain which produces the highest probability of describing the observation sequence is deemed to be the recognised word. In the training stage, these Markov chains may be learnt from a single training example.

Robust Symbol Selection: An appropriate mapping from stage I feature vectors to symbols (representing the states in the Markov chains) must be selected. If signs were produced by signers without any variability, or if the stage I classification was perfect, then (aside from any computational concerns) one could simply use a one-to-one mapping; that is, each unique feature vector that occurs in the course of a sign is assigned a corresponding state in the chain. However, the HA/TAB/SIG/DEZ representation we employ is binary and signers do not exhibit perfect repeatability. Minor variations over sign instances appear as perturbations in the feature vector degrading classification performance.

For example the BSL sign for `Television', `Computer' or `Picture' all involve an iconic drawing of a square with both hands in front of the signer. The hands move apart (for the top of the square) and then down (for the side) etc. Ideally, a HMM could be learnt to represent the appropriate sequence of HA/TAB/SIG/DEZ representations for these motions. However the exact position/size of the square and velocity of the hands vary between individual signers as does the context in which they are using the sign. This results in subtle variations in any feature vector however successfully it attempts to generalise the motion.

To achieve an optimal feature-to-symbol mapping we apply Independent Component Analysis (ICA). Termed feature selection, this takes advantage of the separation of correlated features and noise in an ICA transformed space and removes those dimensions that correspond to noise. More details are given in our papers.