Language translator offers telcos new opportunity?

Pan-Asian consortium unveils real-time speech translation program with potential for use on mobile phones and portable devices.

SINGAPORE--A*Star's Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) has launched a prototype translation program, which has potential as an add-on service for portable devices and mobile phones in future.

Li Haizhou, department head of human language technology at I2R, said the program can be used as an add-on to mobile phones that telcos can offer by subscription.

Designing the software took three years in the first phase of its development, said Li while unveiling its prototype Wednesday.

The project is a collaborative effort of the eight countries of the Asian Speech Translation Advanced Research Consortium that was founded by China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Thailand in 2006. Singapore and Vietnam joined the consortium in 2008.

The consortium hopes to bring in more countries as it proceeds into the second phase of the project. This would let it add more languages and expand the use of the program.

Li said the program can be installed onto any Java-enabled device as a software, similar to Skype. Internet connection is necessary as it is a network-based translation system that connects to the servers located in each participating country.

These servers will act as "translation centers" where each member country handles a certain language, for example Singapore translates from the Malay language while Japan will translate from Japanese.

Li said bandwidth will affect the translation process, but current speeds are sufficient to transmit the voice's wavelength over the network.

The program currently recognizes and translates nine languages--English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Malay and Hindi.

In the second phase of the project, Li hopes to "attract interest" from telcos or potential partners that are interested to provide speech translation services.

The program requires some fine-tuning if it is to be used by service providers or potential partners, he said.

A case for replication
Currently, each country hosts only one server, which it uses for the particular language it translates. As such, if the server a country hosts does not work, that language will not be able to be translated.

Li noted the need for server replication in each country to overcome such a situation.

When it comes to names, idioms and slangs, the translation can be less accurate. Also, a conversation in a mixture of languages might confuse the program as well, said Li.

When asked about the official release of the program, Li said "it will still take a couple of years".

Based in Singapore, Konrad Foo is an intern with ZDNet Asia.

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