With tens of thousands of soccer fans, most of whom don't speak a word of Japanese, heading here for the World Cup, NEC Corp. has begun trials of a new electronic translation system that aims to make communication problems and linguistic misunderstandings a thing of the past.
The new system is a cut-down version of NEC's Tabitsu translation software for personal computers and has been designed to run on PDAs (personal digital assistants) running Microsoft Corp.'s Pocket PC software. Using the software, which has been given the provisional name Transpeech, users can speak in English or Japanese and have their sentences translated to the other language, displayed on the PDA screen and spoken by a voice synthesizer in the PDA.
"NEC has been researching speech recognition for around 20 years," said Shinichi Okugawa, group manager of the broadband and multimedia research and development division at NEC group company NEC CustomTechnica. "We started developing the PDA version in the summer of 2001. The target is to finish development this fall or this winter."
As part of the development program, the system is getting its first real world test during the FIFA World Cup, which is being cohosted by South Korea and Japan and runs until June 30. The company has distributed a number of PDAs to retailers at Tokyo's Narita Airport, the main international gateway for Japan, and is asking the shops to use them and report back their experiences.
The system has two basic parts. First it must recognize what is being said and then translate that in the other language. The Narita system handles English and Japanese in each direction but no other languages.
In use on Sunday afternoon, the system managed fairly error-free recognition. It has been tuned for use in travel and tourism and handled "Where is the station?" and "Do you have any Japanese wine?" with no mistakes. However, "I would like to buy a Japanese souvenir," became "Vied like to buy a Japanese souvenir."
In such situations, where the recognition is close but not totally correct, users can tap the keyboard and type in new words to replace the incorrect ones. This means users are spared the need to repeat the sentence, which is lucky because recognition still takes some time. The system took around 10 seconds to recognize each sentence and a few more seconds to translate, making a smooth conversation pretty difficult.
"On PCs, the translation is almost real time but the processor and memory limitations of the PDA mean it takes longer," said Okugawa. The PDA version of the software is running in 32M bytes of memory with the translation dictionary residing in a 128M byte Compact Flash card. Compare that with the 128M bytes of memory used by the PC version and a 600M byte dictionary, and the reasons behind the slow response are easy to see.
NEC needs to solve these problems to avoid dissatisfaction among consumers, who care only about how well it works and not the technology behind the system.
"We would like to shorten the time needed to a few seconds," said Okugawa, who added that a noise reduction system is also under development to target the problems the system currently has with background noise. Other targets include the adaptation of the system, which is currently tuned for East Coast and Central U.S. accents, to British, Australian and Canadian accents.
Additional language versions, such as Korean or Chinese, are also under consideration although the company has yet to make any decision on these, said Okugawa.