Ever since our earliest ancestors decided to leave their caves and trudge next door to the neighbor's campfire, we've had language and interpretation problems. In peacetime — then as now — this could be no more than a temporary nuisance. But in wartime, the nuances and difficulties in language interpretation can ratchet up to unacceptable levels. In wartime, half the battle may be the bellicosity — or the tactful diplomacy — that takes place long before the bullets fly.
The Office of Naval Research is in the business of finding and supporting every technology that might help our fleet and troops, and is looking carefully at the Compadre™ Language Translation technology being developed by SpeechGear, Inc., of Northfield, Minnesota. SpeechGear's trio of products promises to handle voice, text as well as photographed images such as signs (the problem for our troops is further compounded when the signs are written in Arabic, Korean or other languages using non-Roman letters).
Compadre's voice-to-voice product called Interact offers simultaneous two-way translation of spoken language. Interact is light, portable, requires little power and can process many variations in language because it connects to a server at a remote location that handles the massive computing power necessary to handle the nuances of language translation. Interact will also be able to generate a written record of the conversation.
"Our goal is to make sure that the meaning of the sentence is accurately translated," said Robert Palmquist, president and chief executive officer of SpeechGear, Inc. "While similar speech translators in development rely on a vocabulary of stock phrases to find the best match, Interact translates verbally by using context to understand the meaning of homophones such as "write" and "right" and "patients" and "patience."
"The troops in the field need only to pick up the phone for two-way simultaneous translation with Interact," said Joel Davis, who is overseeing the project at the Office of Naval Research. "This is a seamless verbal communication tool for communication with any person we don't share a language with. And the beauty of the system is that the server handling the computations doesn't have to be on site. "
When the language barrier is written, or when the alphabet is unfamiliar, SpeechGear's Camara product can take digital pictures of signs, notices or documents, for example, to provide the appropriate translation.
Also in the SpeechGear trio of products is Interprete, a very portable personal digital assistant (PDA)-based electronic dictionary for voice or data input via stylus or keyboard. Interprete offers word-to-word translation, providing all the correct meanings of a word with usage examples.
Although initially being developed by ONR to support military operations, SpeechGear is also planning to market the products to commercial users. The company plans to distribute test versions of the equipment this spring.
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