YORK could become the first city in the country to use a digital avatar to help deaf visitors explore tourist attractions.

An academic at the University of York has been working on a project to create a virtual signer, which can translate text into a number of international sign languages. The text is then signed by an avatar named John.

A number of the city’s tourist attractions, such as the Jorvik Centre, have already shown an interest in using the software to help improve visitor experience for deaf people.

Professor Tony Ward, who has been spearheading the project at the university’s department of electronic engineering, said: “I would love it if York was at the forefront of cities that say ‘we welcome deaf people.’ It’s a serious challenge.

“If you are a deaf person visiting York for the first time you want to experience the fantastic attractions we have to offer.”

Prof Ward has been working with teams across Europe to develop the software, which will sign British Sign Language as well as Portuguese, Libra, German, Cypriot, Greek and Slovenian sign languages.

The ultimate aim of the project is to install touch screens across the city in transport hubs, tourist spots and even hotels. Prof Ward added that the software still needs work, especially with facial expressions: “It needs improvement, there’s ongoing research to make it better and better. It’s rewarding to get to this stage.

“I would like to see it everywhere. There is no cost of hiring a sign interpreter, no video recording costs – it is all there in the software, and you can engage in a live conversation with a non-signing person.”

He added that the avatar has been named John because it is the only name that translates into all the languages.

Rebecca Francis, commercial manager at York’s marketing body Make it York, said there are plans to introduce the software at the city’s visitor centre where the avatar will sign a welcome message.

She said: “We are really keen to embrace it. The project has really opened our eyes to what we need to do as a city to welcome people and make York more accessible. It’s been really interesting.”