How Translation Gadgets Overpromise and Underdeliver

You know we are still quite a ways from that fully functioning universal translator when even Microsoft admits that using Skype Translator will result in a “clear negative impact” on conversation. And yet they keep coming, these gadgets and apps that are said to provide simultaneous interpretation or so-called real-time translation.

There was some hype in 2009 surrounding the US Military’s use of something akin to Captain Kirk’s universal translator. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about it, so did PC World. Called the Phraselator, the handheld device let you pick a phrase from a menu and it would play the pre-recorded version in, say, Arabic; or speak into the device and a matching phrase would play. Hardly universal nor real-time when phrases are limited to a pre-recorded menu.

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The Barriers That Didn’t Fall

Tech powerhouse Japan has been churning out translation apps and gizmos ever since Tokyo announced (and subsequently won) its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Among the most prolific is NTT Docomo, which debuted a Japanese restaurant menu translation app in 2011; which probably won’t help those craving Arabian cuisine.

In 2012, the Japanese telco unveiled the Hanashite Hon’yaku automatic translation service, prompting Engadget to predict “cross-cultural barriers will break down starting November 1st,” the service’s release date. It is now 2017 and we hear they are still firmly in place.

Some ‘Star Trek’ gadgets no longer futuristic — San Francisco Chronicle

NTT Docomo also rolled out Jspeak in November 2014. For around USD 1–3 you can play with face-to-face mobile translation with your Japanese friends. Or try the company’s handwriting translation service announced September 2015 and test-driven at Haneda airport.

Magic Mic

Japanese translation apps, many of them glorified dictionaries, seem to be a dime a dozen these days in the run-up to the next Summer Games.

Even Panasonic jumped into the fray with its much-covered translating megaphone, Megaphonyaku, in November 2016. The Japan-based tech titan rolled out the device for use at the airport and by police, leading Fortune to announce that “Japanese Police Officers Will Now Be Able to Address You Very Loudly in English.”

The Daily Mail could not resist a cheeky description, calling the megaphone “The real ‘magic’ mic.” Hardly magic as the megaphone works off some 300 preset Japanese sentences, such as “Watch your step” or “The train has been delayed.”

Panasonic to launch megaphone that can translate on the fly — The Japan Times

In January 2017, Gear Live reviewed Panasonic’s translation technology from the CES 2017. Blogger Andru Edwards demoed the microphone and touchscreen array, which allows two or more people speaking different languages to hold a conversation across the front desk of a hotel, for instance.

But Panasonic knows better than to market gadgets like Megaphonyaku as a standalone device and risk widespread criticism. Instead, they charge users USD 183 per month under a three-year contract to be able to tell tourists the train has been delayed.

Future Robot

Not to be outdone, South Korea will deploy a translation robot for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Software developer Hancom will install its automatic interpretation app, GenieTalk, in a service robot from manufacturer Future Robot to provide information to visitors at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

While in this part of Asia, we just have to mention Samsung. The Korean conglomerate has taken on the unenviable mission of resuscitating the stylus (Remember those?) with the S Pen. Hover the tip of the stylus over a word in the Note7 to get the translation. CNet pointed out the S Pen is even dust-resistant — which we reckon it would have to be as it will probably end up gathering dust somewhere.

Like a Tchotchke Around the Neck

Among the most covered translation contraptions, especially by mainstream media, are the wearables. Two of the most popular appear to be the Logbar ili and the Pilot earpiece.

Launched at the CES 2016, the ili is a pendant-like doodad you can wear around your neck as it repeats phrases back to you in your chosen language. According to a USA Today headline, the ili “aims to smash language barriers.”

The USA Today article was actually a reprint of Tyler Lynch’s Reviewed.com story. Lynch’s verdict: “It works like any other digital translator, except for the fact that it’s voice-activated and doesn’t require an Internet connection.”

New wearable translator aims to smash language barriers — USA Today

The Pilot Bluetooth translating earpiece drew a lot of excitement from the media, with the Daily Mail calling it a Babel Fish-like gadget in a headline, ExtremeTech saying it was the start of a world without language barriers (Sound familiar?), and sundry allusions to sci-fi novels from CNet and TechMic.

Well, Forbes refused to drink the Kool-Aid. In a critical May 17, 2016 article, contributor Paul Armstrong questioned whether Pilot was more science fiction than fact. After a rigid quizzing of the CEO of Pilot developer Waverly Labs, Armstrong was left unconvinced; especially given how a startup like Waverly “had created this seemingly miraculous tool in about a tenth of the time it has taken people like Skype to develop similar technology.”

20,000 Backers, No Pressure

Waverly launched its crowdfunding campaign the week after that Forbes article came out — and raised just under USD 4.5m. Pilot will have to answer to its close to 20,000 backers, who get their units in May 2017.

Released to less media hype than Pilot, but coming out ahead of it in March 2017, is Clik. The wireless translation earbuds by UK startup Mymanu reportedly raised about USD 0.3m in crowdfunding. Clik claims to do pretty much the same thing as Pilot, but promises to support 37 languages compared to Pilot’s initial four.

Aside from wearables, there are also pocket translators like Ectaco, Lexibook, and Atlas, basically, talking dictionaries (which all look like the PDAs of 20 years ago) and iFlytek’s remote-control-sized portable translator announced in December 2016 in China to very limited coverage.

Thus far, it is highly doubtful that any of these contraptions will graduate from mere tchotchke-level to widespread use in actual conversation. But see if that stops anyone.

Marion Marking

Communications specialist, veteran journalist, and online editor at Slator who dreams of driving a Veyron on the Autobahn