The fully functional, universal Star Trek-style translator has been just around the corner for the last decade ot two, but next week one of the strongest contenders for this ultimate crown is up for an award in Germany's top future product.

A simultaneous-translation computer that can be accessed via mobile phone to interpret business conversations between different languages has been nominated for the prestigious German Future Prize.

Called Verbmobil, the system was developed by a team of scientists led by Wolfgang Wahlster at the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, the DFKI. Wahlster is the first computer scientist ever to be nominated for the annual German Future Prize.

Verbmobil uses an innovative speech analysis process that can interpret spontaneous, everyday human speech, continually updating its knowledge database to reduce misunderstandings. A prototype version, unveiled in late 2000, can translate between Chinese, English, German and Japanese.

The result of some 20 years of basic research, the Verbmobil project has already resulted in such spin-off products as a speech-directed internet product search and an automated telephone cinema program listing.

The multidisciplinary project, involving computer scientists, linguists, artificial intelligence experts and others is a key to the future of the information society, DFKI said in a statement.

Computers will not become a universal technology until anyone can make an inquiry or command in his or her own language, and be answered in that same language, the institute added.

The German Future Prize will be awarded on Tuesday next week in Berlin by German President Johannes Rau.