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Real-time voice translation coming to mobile

Stephen Lawson | April 23, 2010
Emerging device-based and cloud software isn't universal but is aimed at common conversations

SAN FRANCISCO, 22 APRIL 2010 - Instant speech translation, a longtime dream of science-fiction writers, is already feasible in certain situations, vendors said at the Mobile Voice Conference in San Francisco on Thursday.

Novauris demonstrated software running on a mobile phone that can instantly translate commonly used phrases, and another company, Fluential, discussed a server-based system that has been used for real-time interpretation in a hospital. Though neither is commercially available yet, both companies said they are technically ready to go.

A universal translator has been a longtime dream in science fiction, including the Star Trek TV series. Google reportedly said earlier this year it was working on one, and the merger of Dial Directions and Sakhr Software last year raised hopes for such a system.

The complexities of grammar and culture, on top of understanding vast vocabularies and processing spoken inputs quickly, have made that vision a hard one to realize. Cisco Systems said in 2008 it expected to offer real-time translation for its Telepresence video collaboration system the following year. The company subsequently said that getting accurate translations was harder than expected and it could not forecast when the feature would be available.

What Novauris and Fluential have developed can't translate all speech, but the software is designed to carry out translation quickly enough that users can converse at a relatively normal rate. Each is designed to overcome communication problems in specific situations.

Novauris CEO Yoon Kim called his company's proof-of-concept software a "flexible phrase translator." The tool is designed to let travelers speak certain phrases into a phone in their own words, without having to memorize a specific wording, and have them translated into the local language and read aloud to the person being addressed. To demonstrate, Kim said, in English, "I think there's a mistake in the bill," and had it automatically translated into a Japanese phrase. Then he said, "I'm afraid there's a mistake in the bill," and it was translated into the same Japanese phrase.

If the user's meaning is obvious enough, the translation happens automatically. If it's less clear, the software will display the standard phrase that it believes the user wanted to say and seek confirmation before it translates and speaks it to the other person, Kim said. The prepared phrases are crafted to make the interaction easier for both parties. For example, the software might use the phrase, "Please point me to the restroom" instead of "Where are the restrooms?" because a non-Japanese speaker would not understand verbal directions to the restroom from a Japanese speaker.

The Novauris technology can also do two-way translation, in which each person's phrases are translated into the other person's language. As long as each uses simple phrases and doesn't ask open-ended questions, each party can speak and hear the conversation in his or her native language, Kim said.


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