NEC Puts Speech-to-Text Translation on Cell Phone

Japanese electronics giant NEC said on Friday that the real-time translator it has been developing for cell phones to instantly convert Japanese travellers' words into English has finally reached the level of practical use.

To use the software, which is installed as middleware inside the phone, users speak a Japanese phrase into the phone. NEC’s proprietary speech recognition and translation technology, built on the same speech recognition technology that went into its VisualVoice engine for PCs, displays a text record of the sentence on the phone’s display screen. One second later, an English version appears.

NEC says the early pilots represent the first time in the world that automatic translation was made available on a cell phone without external help. The product was tested on a cell phone manufactured by NEC, but the ultimate goal is to make the technology available for any phone from any manufacturer, says Kazuko Andersen, an NEC spokesperson.

The software, which can recognize some 50,000 Japanese words, is especially designed for smooth translation of travel phrases such as "Can I have a subway route map?" Though tests of the technology involved Japanese-to-English translation, "English-to-Japanese translation technology is also at the similar level of completion," and the company is also fine-tuning Japanese-to-Chinese translation, Andersen says. Other languages might be possible, but NEC "is trying to perfect it with Japanese to English first, and then will maybe go after other [languages]," she adds.

While the technology exists to provide a spoken output of the English translation, NEC  is not considering the idea at the moment, says Mitsumasa Fukumoto, another NEC spokesperson. "We would need to study how to recognize voices on the phone precisely. Another problem would be how the person on the other side of the line could know if his or her words are being translated correctly," he said.

NEC has not put forth a timeline for when the technology will be commercially available, but Andersen says it is something that NEC has been working on since 1999. Early plans, however, call for the product to be available only in Japan before a wider release.

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