In Department of Design, School of Communications

BYU students from the School of Communications and the Department of Design came together to create ‘Handimojis’ — an ASL-friendly version of Apple’s ‘Animoji’

BYU students Sam Carlson, Amanda Rasmussen and Coni Ramirez were given an assignment in their advertising class — create an idea that uses technology to connect customers to a brand. The result of this project extended beyond the classroom walls and has encouraged a wider conversation about inclusivity and diversity.

Carlson knew he wanted this project to focus on the deaf community because of his deep admiration of American Sign Language and deaf culture — a respect he gained while serving an ASL mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and working as an ASL teaching assistant for BYU. 

During the brainstorming phase, Carlson proposed to Rasmussen and Ramierez that they use the idea of Apple’s Animoji technology and add the ability to depict hand movement. This would allow users who couldn’t previously use the feature to have access to Animoji technology in a new, exciting and personalized way. 

In addition to using this for their class project, the team decided to enter ‘Handimojis’ into the Future Lions advertising competition. The challenge for the competition was to “connect an audience of your choosing to a product or service from a global brand in a way that wasn’t possible three years ago.” ‘Handimojis’ fit the goal of the competition, so they decided to make the April 15 deadline.

When the team presented the idea of ‘Handimojis’ to their BYU class, they were met with hesitation as many people were under the assumption that it would be impossible for deaf users to be able to hold their phone and use ‘Handimojis’ at the same time. However, the team explained that deaf people already use just one hand when video chatting on the phone. The new feature could be easily integrated into the existing culture.

The team enlisted the help of Britta Schwall, a member of the Salt Lake Deaf Community, to sign in the one minute and 15 second video clip. After they finished shooting the footage of Schwall and others from the Salt Lake Deaf Community, there was still an integral part missing — the animation for the ‘Handimojis’ hands. 

This task proved to be the most challenging aspect of bringing ‘Handimojis’ to life. The three advertising students knew what they wanted but didn’t have the skills themselves to execute the 3D graphics for ‘Handimojis.’ 

BYU advertising and design students created ‘Handimojis,’ the demo version of Animojis for the deaf community.

As the team hurried to find someone to do the animation before the upcoming competition deadline, they turned to the Department of Design and its animation students. They eventually got in contact with Emily Ellis, who had just learned in her animation class the exact skills and techniques that would be required to complete the ‘Handimojis’ idea. 

“Emily was the answer to our prayers,” said Carlson. “With four days until the deadline, she pulled off some kind of magic. Seeing her animation was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen — it was exactly how we imagined it.”

Rassmussen took Ellis’ animations and added them into the video only hours before the Future Lions competition deadline.

Although the team’s idea didn’t advance in the competition, the team felt proud of their work and commitment to include a group of people that had previously been excluded from using Animojis.

Schwall asked the team for permission to share their video on her Facebook to show what she had helped with. While the post was initially intended for Schwall’s immediate family and friends, the post now has over 48k views and 800 shares. 

Many of the comments on the post ask if ‘Handimojis’ is available for download or mention they weren’t able to find it in the App Store. While this app hasn’t been picked up by Apple, these comments show high interest and appreciation for this idea created by BYU students. 

“Seeing how the Deaf community reacted to it was more fulfilling than winning any award,” said Carlson. “It was a reminder to me why I first got involved with advertising — there’s so much good and positive change we can be a part of.”

Read additional coverage at ABC4.

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