Why the world isn't ready for the travel app revolution

Translation apps don't translate into actual usefulness, and the artificial intelligence travel guides don't compute. Here's why.

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A revolution in travel apps in the past five years has the potential to transform the experience of traveling abroad. It can erase language barriers and give people artificial intelligence tour guides that revolutionize the experiencing of visiting another country.

I'm not exaggerating -- these are no small changes.

We've gone from the days when instant language translation was an idea that existed only in the realms of lab research or science fiction, to an era when free and low-cost apps that do such translation are available to everyone with a smartphone.

The tools available for organizing and discovering travel resources and opportunities -- which now leverage artificial intelligence and social input -- are nothing less than astounding.

But while hundreds of nimble, innovative startups are transforming travel, their ideas and products remain hostage to a dysfunctional mobile market where wireless data access systems are antiquated and massively overpriced.

In the real world, you can't really use any of the revolutionary travel technologies unless you're willing to pay a fortune for data connectivity.

How great is the revolution?

A video hit YouTube this week showing a Microsoft researcher demonstrating language translation technologies.

In the demo, Microsoft Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid says something, and in less than two seconds, a natural-sounding Chinese translation is spoken by a computer -- in Rashid's own voice. (Forward to 7:30 in this video to see the demonstration.)

Of course, Microsoft's technology is still in the research stage. But apps that provide functional audible and instantaneous translations are widely available.

Some support multiple languages. Others specialize in translations between two languages. They typically involve speaking, getting the text, then pushing a button for the foreign language to be spoken. One example is an app called Vocre. Another good one is Google Translate. They work great -- if you're connected to the Internet.

One exception that I'm aware of is an iOS and Android app called Jibbigo, which offers free language translation with a connection. But for $4.99 per "language pair," they'll let you download their "offline translator." (Unfortunately for me, Jibbigo doesn't support Turkish.)

The other good news is that the revolution in travel apps includes sign-reading apps that don't require an Internet connection.

For example, apps like Pleco (for translation of Chinese into English) and Word Lens (for English to and from French, Italian or Spanish) will translate written words, so you can "read" menus and signs without an Internet connection.

Another potentially awesome resource for travelers originates in the same research organization as Apple's artificial intelligence voice assistant, Siri.

Currently in a public beta release, the iPad-only app is called Desti, and it uses Siri-like natural language processing and semantic search to "understand" and then answer questions you have when you're traveling.

Desti travel app
With Desti, a new iPad app now in public beta, users type in questions in natural language and get back advice about where to stay, what to eat and what to do while traveling.
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