We certainly do live in interesting times. A couple of weeks ago I was having my mind boggled at the Embedded Vision Summit (see Day 1 and Day 2); now I discover that embedded speech may be poised to take a giant leap forward.
I don’t know about you, but like most English people I'm pathetic when it comes to speaking other languages. This is one of those things a really, really wish I could do, but I just don’t have the “ear” for it. If someone from another country asks me to say something in their language, when I do so they say “No, say it this way.” So I try again, and we bounce back and forth on the same word, but I can’t hear where I'm going wrong.
This used to happen to me a lot when I first moved to the USA. I would go to the supermarket and ask the location of the bottled water, and whoever I was talking to would say “Bottled what?” And I would repeat “water” and they would continue to look baffled. Time after time I would be reduced to saying something like “When you are at the kitchen sink and you turn the faucet on, this liquid comes out of it — this is the liquid I want you to sell me in a bottle.” And they would say “Oh, you mean water!” And I would scream “Yes, water!” And they would say “What?”
It’s no secret that I love science fiction. In Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein, our hero Matt Dodson learns Venusian while in an induced hypnotic sleep state. Similarly, in Eon by Greg Bear, one of the characters goes into a futuristic library and learns to read and speak “Russian like a native Muscovite” in just a couple of hours.
An alternative scenario is the Babel fish — a universal translator that neatly crosses the language divide between any species — postulated by the late, great Douglas Adams in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy :
“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”
The reason I'm waffling on about this here is that it appears that the embedded equivalent of the Babel fish may soon be upon us. On May 25 (tomorrow as I pen these words), a small New York City-based startup company called Waverly Labs will be launching their Pilot Indiegogo Project. As you can see in this video, the Pilot is an earpiece that provides its wearer with a real-time translation of the spoken word in the selected language.
As far as I can work out, the Pilot operates in conjunction with an app running on a smartphone or tablet. I'm guessing that the Pilot communicates with the smartphone/tablet via Bluetooth. I'm not sure if the app performs the translation locally or in the cloud.
Since the Pilot hasn’t actually come out yet, I'm trying to restrain my expectations. On the other hand, I can’t stop myself from thinking how cool it would be if everyone were wearing one of these little rascals, thereby allowing us all to communicate with each other without having to speak slowly and loudly and wave our hands around a lot. Who knows, one day I might even be able to go to my local supermarket and ask for bottled water without ending up being treated like a village idiot.