Travellers in or from East Asia may soon be able to turn to their mobile phones for quick, easy and cheap translation help thanks to a new application from Toshiba.
The company has developed a trilingual translation system with voice recognition and synthesis that's compact and light enough to be installed in a mobile phone.
Unlike existing applications the software doesn't offload processing to a more powerful server on the network but performs the task inside the phone. That makes it quicker and avoids potentially costly data roaming charges when used overseas.
The software is a cut-down version of a PC application already sold by Toshiba in Japan and can translate freely between Japanese, English and Chinese.
In use the software first employs speech recognition to determine the language and what has been said. It then uses one of two translation methods - statistical machine translation or rule-based machine translation - to parse the sentence and break it down into its components.
The translation is then performed and a speech synthesis engine outputs the result.
Statistical machine translation works on probability and word order to determine the construction of a sentence while the rule-based method utilizes a database of hundreds of sentences and phrases to extract the meaning.
The PC software uses both methods simultaneously but a cell phone lacks enough processing power to run both so statistical machine translation is used for English to Chinese and Chinese to English and Japanese while rule-based machine translation is used for the others.
In tests the software worked well although like all speech recognition systems was prone to misidentifying certain words. This caused problems with the translation and the only solution was to try again - sometimes with the result that the same error would be made.
However on some occasions it got things right and not only recognized the question but successfully translated it.
"If I pay cash can you give me a discount?" was one of the sentences that it took in its stride.
Toshiba faced several challenges when developing the software. The demonstration was running on its TG01 smartphone that includes a relatively powerful 1GHz Qualcomm processor.
The phone runs the Windows Mobile operating system and that imposes a 32MB limit on the size of each process running on the phone. However working within those restrictions the software was successfully pared down.
Work on the application at Toshiba's research department is almost complete after which it will be turned over to business units for commercialization.
The Windows Mobile application could be modified to run on other operating systems, such as Android or Apple's iPhone OS, but future plans are yet to be decided.