Embarking on an unanticipated war in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, the Pentagon found itself woefully lacking in personnel able to speak the dozen or so languages common to the Central Asian country.
The military, along with the CIA, put out an SOS to American speakers of Dari or Pashto - the two most prevalent tongues - to help out, offering substantial salaries to those with the much-needed linguistic skills.
A new high-tech device, due out soon, could one day make such a scenario a thing of the past. It's a "wearable" translating computer, developed partly by the U.S. Office of Naval Research to arm troops with the ability to almost instantaneously communicate with speakers of about a dozen languages in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South and Central America.
Not only can the cell-phone-sized device quickly discern the essence of conversations, it can also understand idioms and slang, and adapt to accents as different as those heard in Austin, Texas, and Boston.
Developed in part with a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the 23-ounce gizmo that can be clipped to a belt has been built by ViA Inc., a Burnsville, Minn., maker of wearable computers.
Designed primarily for military use, the device also could prove valuable for everything from police officers, telephone operators, customs and immigration agents, to airport and hospital personnel and tourists, according to ViA and the Navy. It could be far more affordable than training and paying a stable of human translators.
In fact, the genesis for the translator - which ViA says will sell for between $5,000 and $10,000 each - was a St. Paul, Minn., tragedy several years back. A fire engulfed a building, killing a handful of Vietnamese who could not understand firefighters' instructions to turn left to exit the structure. Instead, they turned right and got trapped.
"That was the seed of thought for making a voice-to-voice, hands-free translator," Robert Palmquist, ViA vice president of innovative technologies, told reporters.
Bearing some resemblance to the sort of space-age translating gadget familiar to "Star Trek" fans, the battery-powered ViA device is made from mostly commercially available products. Its processor runs at 600 megahertz and the device packs 128 megabytes of memory.
It works like this: A user speaks into a small microphone, which triggers the voice-recognition software. A computer converts the words to text, translates them, then speaks the translated version, which can be word-for-word or a summary. This takes about five seconds.
Each unit will come with a 100,000-word dictionary, plus the capability to be programmed with specialized word lists such as those for medical purposes, as well as idiomatic expressions.
Rather than being designed to simply recognize set phrases - "Follow me" or "Where are your weapons?" - the translator is able to understand the gist of a free-form conversation and convey it to the user in its proper context. A user can also verbally read a newspaper story and quickly get the general sense of what it says.
The device also comprehends the different meanings of words that sound alike but are spelled differently, such as "right" and "write." Users can personalize them further by inputting a speaker's gender so that translations are spoken with the proper male or female voice. Nearly real-time visual displays of translated conversation transcripts also are possible.
So far, the devices are capable of translating English into about a dozen languages, including Korean, Serbian, Arabic, Thai, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Others of the globe's 6,000 languages, such as the Afghan tongues, could be added later.
The naval research office envisions that one device would be sufficient for a unit of 12 soldiers in the field. So far, soldiers who have tried the translator at Fort Polk, La., give it generally high marks, although complaints were made about the lag time between speech and translation. Palmquist said he hopes the next generation of the devices can operate wirelessly and provide even faster translations.
Further trials are scheduled in South America, Saudi Arabia and the Pacific region.
On the Web:
http://www.via-pc.com - ViA Inc.
http://www.onr.navy.mil - Office of Naval Research
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