The language barrier which exists between massive groups of the world population went one step closer to elimination when NEC Corporation and NEC Personal Products announced the development of an automatic speech-to-speech Travel Interpreter (Japanese-English/English-Japanese) recently. The Travel Interpreter incorporates several NEC technologies - speech recognition, conversation-based speech translation and speech synthesis technology and achieves high-speed speech translation of approximately one second per Japanese sentence spoken.In essence, this means that a traveller speaking only English can converse with someone who speaks only Japanese via NEC's PDA-based translator.
Whats more, the translator's development programme is being run in conjunction with Narita Airport Authority, and the Travel Interpreter will be available for some international travellers at New Tokyo International (Narita) Airport over coming months.
Previous evaluation trials of NEC's own speech translation software held at Narita Airport led to efforts to improve speed and accuracy, and have contributed to significant improvements and the realization of a smoother conversation support system.
The offering of NEC's translation software is part of the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport's 'e-Airport' project which incorporates offering the most advanced IT available in offering new services for the comfort and convenience of airport users. NEC's automatic speech-to-speech translation software is also being used in the 'e-Navi' service which is also a part of 'e-Airport'.
The e-Navi program is a monitoring program that entails loaning of PDAs containing travel aid functions to overseas visitors during their stay in Japan.
A sample of the synthesised voice which the system generates can be found here (WMV format).
NEC will continue proactively working on translation support solutions and intends to extend these to languages other than English and Japanese in the future. Interestingly, the same software used in the NEC translater has been incorporated in a cut-down version, in one of the human-companion robots it has under development - a cute little doe-eyed robot named PaPeRo.
PaPeRo (Partner-Type Personal Robot) is a small robot capable of listening and seeing, and has been developed with the aim of acting as a personal partner to family members within the home. NEC saw the need for effective two-way speech translation between Japanese and English as imperative in order to overcome what it calls, 'the great digital divide.'
But fitting all the code and processing power into PaPeRo was a monumental task given its limited memory and processing power. PaPeRo has been programmed with 50,000 Japanese, and 25,000 English travel/tourism related words that enable automatic Japanese-English/English-Japanese conversation. Ironically, this coming of age of one of mankind's greatest goals has come on the 21st anniversary of NEC's beginning the development of translation software.
It was in 1983 that NEC first announced intentions of developing an automatic translation system that was finally realized in 1999. In 2001 NEC launched automatic speech-to-speech translation software 'Tabitsu' for use on notebook PCs on the market. The realization of a speech-to-speech translation capable robot is one step towards eliminating the digital divide and realizing barrier-free communication. NEC will continue to work on this system to enable hands-free (microphone-free) voice input.