Next up for Google Plus Hangouts: Sign language support

Google’s (s GOOG) new Hangouts group video chat service has been a big hit with early adopters. Now the company is looking to make it more widely available without leaving anyone behind: Google is going to launch a field test with users fluent in American Sign Langauge (ASL) to make Hangouts more accessible to deaf and hearing impaired users.

The field test is spearheaded by Google Technical Program Manager for Accessibility Engineering Naomi Black as well as the Engineering Director Chee Chew, who kicked off the initiative with a post to Google Plus that explained his personal stake in the issue:

“One area that I’m personally quite passionate about is facilitating communications and community for the deaf. My grandfather, aunt, and uncle were/are all deaf. While I’m very much a novice, I find ASL to be a beautiful expressive language. I hope that Hangouts can be awesome for the deaf (and hard of hearing) community as well as the hearing.”

Video chat applications have long been used by hearing impaired users to communicate via sign language. Skype (s MSFT) seems to be particularly popular with hard of hearing users, and some users have turned to the service to learn and practice sign language.

Google is asking Google Plus Hangouts users for feedback on sign language support.

Multiuser video chat would be the logical next step for hard of hearing users, but there are also some technical challenges associated with group video conferencing. Google Hangouts, for example, is optimized for audible communication, as it switches its focus between users based on their microphone input. The idea of this feature is to prominently display the video camera input of the user who is currently talking, which has the added benefit of giving users an incentive not to talk over each other.

Gauging participation based on microphone input levels obviously doesn’t work for users who communicate via sign language, so Google is now looking for other cues. “We need an indicator for who has the floor,” explained Chee in his post, adding: “I’m sure there are subtle issues that I don’t know.”

Making its video products accessible to deaf users isn’t just stewardship for Google; it could also help the company avoid future liabilities. Disability advocates have begun targeting online media offerings in recent weeks to force them to adopt closed captions for web video. Lawsuits against CNN (s TWX) and Netflix (s NFLX) allege the companies discriminate against deaf and hard of hearing users by failing to provide captions for each and every video served online. Some of the points made by the plaintiffs in these cases could also be used to argue that a video chat service that focuses on audible speech discriminates against deaf users.

Regardless of the motivation, early feedback from Google Plus users about the Hangouts field test is overwhelmingly supportive and even enthusiastic. In a comment on Chew’s post, one user summed up his feelings this way:

“I actually cried with joy at reading this post and finding out that Google and the Google+ team actually care about all of their user base. Thank you very much for just thinking about us.”

Picture of kids learning sign language courtesy of Flickr user daveynin.