Chinese services company Capinfo has made a Motorola flip-phone speak Chinese for visitors to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Today's GPRS technology will create a somewhat Star Trek like experience, according to a demonstration by Capinfo chairman Chen Xinxiang, at the Wi-Fi business development summit in Milan last week.
Like previous Olympics, Beijing will showcase new technologies, with China Mobile covering the whole 7.8 square km Olympic village with Wi-Fi, and the results and fixtures broadcast to all visitors. There will also be an emergency response system, in which vehicles will carry WiMax stations so they can create wireless links back from the scene of any incident, that will carry images and information back to the control centres.
As well as this system, CapInfo had a brief to help visitors get past Beijing's distinctive language and culture difficulties, and explore the city.
"This is the first wireless multi-lingual city guide for any Olympics," said Dr Chen. But Beijing can't guarantee Wi-fi or 3G by 2008, so, he says. The application therefore uses proven technology in the handset backed up with GPRS data and a call centre.
The handset will carry guidebook data, including text, images and videos about historic sites, as well as directions to those sites and other useful locations like restaurants and hotels. The guide also includes a phrase book, showing phrases in English and Manadarin, which can be read out by the phone using a text-to-speech converter. In Dr Chen's example, a visitor can get a taxi ride or order a meal by picking phrases from the book and holding the phone up for the taxi driver or waiter to listen to.
If the conversation gets beyond the scope of the phrase book, the user can press a button to talk to a call centre in his or her own language (registered when the phone was hired), and get specific phrases translated. "GPRS and call centres are mature technologies," said Dr Chen. "We plan to use Wi-Fi and 3G, and have location technology in future versions of the system."
These future versions will be in use for the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010, and will also be delivered for European cities such as Paris and London. Indeed, Dr Chen intends to propose the application for London's own Olympics in 2012.
Visitors to Beijing will, of course, be very happy to rent a mobile phone alongside their existing phone, in order to save money on phone calls. The savings coud be even better than you might think, as China Mobile has a well-established IP phone service that uses GPRS data to offer cheap phone calls, says Dr Chen: "IP telephony is an inevitable trend. The quality is getting better and it is cheap. Mobile operators have provided it because it is a requirement of the people."