Navy labs want to help soldiers speak the language of war

Navy labs want to help soldiers speak the language of war

The Office of Naval Research is supporting the development of speech translation technology that could help troops in the field communicate with foreigners and interpret text, signs and other graphics.

'I always thought that this would be mostly for use by infantry, whether it be Army or Marine Corps,' said Joel L. Davis, a scientific officer at ONR's Division of Cognitive, Neural and Biomolecular Science and Technology.

It probably won't be ready in time for troops in Iraq to use in the current conflict, but a suite of prototypes created by SpeechGear Inc. of Northfield, Minn., is ready to be field tested. Davis, who is overseeing the program for ONR, said the tools would be used in Army and Marine exercises in foreign countries this summer.

SpeechGear's Compadre suite consists of three products: Interact, a bidirectional voice-to-voice speech translator; Camara, which uses a digital camera and optical character recognition software to translate images of written material; and Interprete, a hand-held dictionary device that translates words from voice or text input.

A translation engine uses context to determine the meaning of spoken words and phrases. Accuracy of two-way translation during a conversation is hard to quantify, said SpeechGear president Robert Palmquist.

'Our metric for Interprete is to accurately communicate the meaning of a sentence,' he said.

For instance, the phrase, 'How do I get to the subway?' could be translated as, 'Where is the subway? Tell me, please.' Although not a literal translation, it would be accurate. But the idiomatic phrase, 'hold the phone,' could be translated literally and miss the meaning completely. In the course of a conversation this kind of a problem can be corrected by rephrasing.

'The Interprete system works quite well with two people who want to communicate,' Palmquist said.

'If they don't want to cooperate, there's very little you can do,' Davis said.

The system uses a client-server architecture, but Palmquist said initial field testing probably would be on standalone devices containing both the client and server, so that communication links are not an issue.

Davis said that for real-world use in the field the distributed architecture could be more attractive because soldiers would not have to carry the computing power with them. With improved voice and data communications available in the field, a soldier could use a handheld device or a phone that would digitize and compress the voice and transmit it to the translation server. The translation would come back through a speaker. A similar process would transmit digital images and return text translations.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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