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Wearable translation technology – Is this the future?

As computing technology gets ever smaller, cheaper and more powerful, there’s no denying that wearable technology will soon be commonplace. But what will this mean for the translation industry?

Developers have already spotted the huge potential for on-the-spot translation applications, making foreign travel easier with instant voice/text recognition and conversion into other languages.

One wearable device already on the market is SIGMO, a small gadget that can be clipped onto clothing or worn on the wrist. Using a mobile connection, the user selects their native language as well as that of the person they’re communicating with. Then they talk into the SIGMO’s microphone, and the SIGMO plays the translation through the speaker. The other person’s response is translated back in the same way.

Other technology currently in development, such as Google Glass and NTT Docomo’s Intelligent Glasses, makes use of augmented reality, in which the wearer’s view of the world is superimposed with computer-generated images.

Google Glass is a wearable wireless computer with an optical head-mounted display (OHMD), that responds to voice commands. It incorporates a camera, display, touchpad, battery and microphone into spectacle frames so that the wearer can interact with data – capturing images, carrying out searches – while moving about.

In terms of audiovisual translation applications, Google’s focus is on real-time voice translation at the moment – but text translation is undoubtedly in the pipeline. Developers are currently working on applications for the device, and it is expected that a consumer version will be available in spring 2014.

In the meantime, NTT Docomo recently announced that its Intelligent Glasses will be ready by 2020. Also using an OHMD, this device has been designed specifically to translate written Japanese into the wearer’s chosen language. Japanese characters – for example on menus or street signs – are analysed in real time by a software programme which sends the translation back to the display.

The technology is being developed in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in recognition of the fact that very few visitors to the country for this important event will be able to understand the language, so there will be a huge increase in the need for Japanese translation services.

Samsung has revealed similar plans to Google and NTT Docomo, by filing for a patent for wearable computer glasses. These will differ slightly in that they will be attached by micro-USB connection to a smartphone. This means that the glasses will potentially have a longer life by drawing from the phone’s battery, but on the other hand users might be put off by being wired rather than wireless.

Short battery life is only one possible drawback of these wearable translation devices. Other practical considerations such as size and weight also come into play, as well as aesthetics – people won’t want to look silly wearing this technology.

The other major disadvantage, of course, is that computer generated translation can never be as good as human translation – small errors, missed nuances and awkward phrasing will always creep in and potentially cause problems. But for quick, roughly accurate, on-the-spot translation, perhaps wearable technology is the future?