Robert Palmquist wants to improve the world's communication by translating a sentence at a time.

Palmquist's company, Northfield-based SpeechGear, recently launched a $795 software package that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to better communicate with people who may not know sign language.

The software, called Interact-AS, allow users to type or write words and have them read aloud by the computer. The software also picks up what is being verbally said by others and immediately translates it into text for the user to read on the computer screen.

"It's a good thing when people can talk with each other," Palmquist said.

Already, the product is being sold by five distributors, including Eden Prairie-based Harris Communications, one of the largest distributors of products for the deaf and hard of hearing, and has been used by Northfield Public Schools.

The company is in discussions with venture capital funds to raise $2 million in the next three months and plans to be profitable later this year, Palmquist said. So far, several hundred copies of Interact-AS have been sold, he said.

The school district said it is in the process of implementing the software and has had success with the product in special education. For example, a student who had trouble communicating in writing would often have to wait for an instructor to help him.

By using Interact-AS, the student was able to immediately say aloud the answers to questions on a worksheet and have them transcribed by the software, officials said. The district is also using other SpeechGear software to help communicate with foreign language speakers.

"We empowered these kids to communicate in a way that is much more natural," said Chris Richardson, superintendent for Northfield Public Schools.

SpeechGear said the product can be ideal for classrooms, churches, lectures, restaurants or conversations among friends and is not meant to replace interpreters.

Still, some people involved in the deaf community questioned how effective the product would be in a population that relies on sign language -- a visual way of speaking.

"It would be difficult to see what's going on in the classroom and keep your eyes on the computer too," said Jacquie Williams, an interpreter referral specialist for Corcoran-based ASL Interpreting Services. In a smaller educational setting, a sign language interpreter can stand in front of the class next to the instructor, Williams said.

Others, like Linda Mitchell, superintendent of Minnesota State Academies, said SpeechGear's software "is probably not necessary" for use on the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf campus because all of its instructors use sign language.

SpeechGear's latest product is a slight shift away from its roots, which lie in language translation. The company began in 2001, when Palmquist quit his job working at a mobile computer company to start SpeechGear.

The company's first product was software that could translate words in English and Arabic that were written or spoken. Months later, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened and SpeechGear received contracts from the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

As the company grew into translating other foreign languages, Palmquist said he received calls from people asking whether the software could help the deaf or hard of hearing. When sales slowed down during the recession, SpeechGear developed software to meet that need, Palmquist said.

With Interact-AS, SpeechGear will be competing with other types of assisted technology, one of which is the $1,995 Ubiduo, which offers dual devices that allow two users to communicate by typing text.

But people involved in the Deaf community say SpeechGear's Interact-AS stands out because it includes both text and voice recognition. Interact-AS covers 750,000 words and new words can be added to the program.

"[It] allows for greater access to communicate in real time that has not been available previously, particularly in settings where paper-pencil communications or text messaging is not efficient," said Susan Rose of the University of Minnesota's Department of Educational Psychology.

Palmquist said Interact-AS can be helpful in a classroom setting, because the deaf or hard of hearing rely on reading their teachers' lips, and if they don't catch a word they can glance down at their computer. If the teacher turns around to write on a board, the students can look at the transcript of what's being said, Palmquist said.

Although SpeechGear said the software is not meant to replace interpreters, sign language interpreters can be costly. Some interpreters can cost more than $100 for a minimum of two hours and often need to be booked in advance.

SpeechGear said it enables businesses to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers, state and local governments and public accommodations to provide effective communications for people with disabilities, as long as it doesn't cause undue burden.

Still, some lawyers said entities would still have to be mindful of providing equal treatment based on each individual person's condition, and in some cases assisted technology devices like Interact-AS may not work.

Meanwhile, SpeechGear said it plans to keep adding new products to its mix. One upcoming product allows a user to send a text message in English to a phone number, and have it texted back in Spanish. The user will also receive a phone call with their message read aloud in Spanish. Another upcoming product translates pictures of signs or text scanned in foreign languages into English.

"The market demand is high," Palmquist said. "We're just responding to that market demand."

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712