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A Translator in Your iPhone

Anyone who's been deployed at one time or another over the last decade knows that language in a COIN fight is key. You can't get that 'Hearts and Minds' approach done without being able to communicate with some precision to the folks you're trying to win over.

There's been a constant struggle between the technology and teaching solutions to language -- gadgets can provide a short cut to communications, but are often clunky and expensive; classes are the best way to learn a language but take a lot of time, are tough to master and are also pretty expensive.

But sometimes all you need is something to get you by...it's not like you're going to be able to interrogate Zawahiri or Mullah Omar, but if you're a Joe at a TCP, it'll do in a pinch.

That's where something like the new iPhone application SpeechTrans comes in. It's a pretty nifty app that has a full list of languages that can be translated, including Russian, Chinese, Arabic and Korean.

Kit Up! took the app for a test drive for about a month and while it's darn good for short phrases, we had some questions about its military application potential. Instead of rehashing the back and forth, I'll just provide a blow-by-blow from the company:

Do you have to have a wifi or 3G connection for Speechtrans to run, or does the entire library reside on your iphone?

SpeechTrans does require a wifi or 3G connection for translation to function.  All translations are saved into the history log with offline playback.

I noticed the volume is pretty low and the speed of the actual voice translation is pretty fast. Is there a way to slow the translation down and boost the volume? Do you have any suggestions/accessories that could help with the volume issue so it could be used in the field?

SpeechTrans in its next update plans to provide user controls to adjust volume and speed of translation.  Accessories that we have tested for military field use are an external IPhone Speaker.  (as shown in the attached video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdR8y7ig3Lc A Sound Clip which redirects and amplifies the audio by as much as 10 dB may also be a more cost effective solution for field applications.

Are there ways to add mission-specific vocabulary words? I’m thinking of military-specific words like “detonator” or “blasting caps” or “commander” or “ammunition” etc.

Since we are using Nuance Communications Inc’s (Maker of Dragon Dictation) Automatic Speech Recognition as the backbone, the above should be recognized by SpeechTrans as well as most military jargon.  If there are mission-specific vocabulary words which SpeechTrans currently does not recognize, a request can be submitted thru our website and we will ensure the words are added to the vocabulary list.

Are there any military-specific features that you are developing or have available for certain customers?

We attended the Language Convention at the Pentagon in December of 2010 and have integrated several suggested features, including access to offline translations, Chat integration which enables real time translation across the globe and have a prototype OCR capture (Optical Character Recognition) which would enable photo capture and translation of documents, signs, etc .

SpeechTrans is currently being pilot tested in Germany’s Army Medical Command (AMEDD) and we have submitted proposal to DARPA BAA-11-40 BOLT (Boundless Operational Language Translation) for further consideration.

So it's with question #1 where I see the greatest weakness of the product: you have to have a WiFi connection to make it work (the data doesn't reside on your phone -- and that's a good thing since it would take up way too much storage). But I can see how SpeechTrans would help a trooper prep for a mission. He could take a few minutes to learn and practice some phrases that he'd expect to use and even write them down phonetically for later reference.

Look, we all know that actually learning a language is the way to go. But we also recognize that most servicemembers (and OGA types) don't have the time, or even aptitude to learn a language to anywhere near fluency in time for a mission. So something like SpeechTrans can help bridge the gap -- it's a good attempt at least. And at less than $20 for all its capability, you can't go wrong.

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