[CEATEC 2012] Last year, Docomo launched its menu translation app, but this year, their translation application can handle two use cases: conversations over the phone, and conversation side by side with someone speaking another language. At CEATEC 2012, we had an opportunity to try the conversation mode at CEATEC, and it worked quite well.
The concept is simple: two people speaking different language can communicate on a turn-by-turn basis, and the Docomo app translates each phrase in both visual and audio form in real-time. At any given time, each party can easily see if their phrase had been properly translated as every phrase always appear in both languages (see above). While this app may resemble Google Translate (Android version) on the surface, the Docomo translator user interface is much better tuned for a two-person use, while Google Translate really works OK for a single person. I found the interaction with the Docomo app to be quicker and more natural than with Google Translate.
When using the real-time translation in a phone call, each party speaks in their own language and everything gets machine-translated on the fly with a lag time of about two seconds. This is a bit long to feel natural, and it is not possible to check if the other person gets a properly translated version, but the idea is pretty neat and it seemed to work OK in the demos. Right now, it’s hard to believe that the translation would be sufficiently good, even for restaurant reservations. We need to try this in the real-world.
The Docomo translator is currently in trial in Japan and should be released to the public very soon. It is not clear what voice recognition technology Docomo uses, but it has been confirmed to us that Docomo is working with a technology “partner” on this. If that technology partner handles the voice recognition and translation (which is typically not a Docomo specialty), we may see this type of app pop up elsewhere. At the moment, this will only work on Docomo handsets. Obviously, Google may also adapt its Google Translate app and improve its user interface.
Right now, about 13 languages are supported in the conversation mode, and only a handful work on the phone call mode. The permutations are limited, and basically, the translation work as long as Japanese is one of the two languages used at any given time. For the non-Japanese speaking traveler who can rent a Docomo smartphone, this should prove to be extremely useful.