Computerworld - ORLANDO -- Standing at a tiny, utilitarian booth, Bernard Patterson picked up an almost plug ugly, olive drab, handheld computer, pushed a few buttons and demonstrated one of the most novel pieces of applied technology on display here at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association trade show: a device that translates English into the four major languages spoken in Afghanistan.
As Patterson, vice president and chief financial officer at Marine Acoustics Ltd., pushed buttons on what the company calls a Phraselator, the device spit out commands such as "show me your identification" in one after the other of the four predominant languages in Afghanistan: Arabic, Dari, Pashto and Urdu. Then he spoke phrases in English into the device, with translations occurring in a matter of seconds. It was the result of a crash project that Marine Acoustics conducted to take the Phraselator from concept to reality in just six months.
On March 12, Middletown, R.I.-based Marine Acoustics shipped the first devices to U.S. forces operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, although Patterson quickly said he couldn't identify the country of destination but only the name of the operation under the terms of his contract with the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA).
Patterson said his small company, which employs 25 people, usually performs acoustics-related research for the U.S. Navy. The company had no plans to take the Phraselator from concept to reality so quickly under its research contract with DARPA, but that changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. DARPA pushed Marine Acoustics to come up with production models, with last week's shipment the first of the 500 Afghan-language units the company plans to deliver over the next six months.
Marine Acoustics, which is run by retired military officers and Naval Academy graduates including Patterson, developed the Phraselator on a handheld computer powered by the Windows CE operating system using voice recognition software from SRI International Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. Early models of the Phraselator cost approximately $2,000, but Patterson said the company believes it can drive down the price to about $1,500 per unit with volume pricing.
The translator packs a lot of power and information into a tiny device. It can store 1,000 phrases in the four languages on a 20MB compact flash card, and other languages can be supported by other cards. The Afghan unit comes equipped with what Patterson described as a "force protection" language module used by troops operating under potentially hostile conditions. The device also can be quickly adapted to other circumstances with the additionof other modules. For example, a medical module would contain phrases that would help doctors or medics treat patients, he said.
Patterson said the Phraselator can be adapted to other civilian and military uses, including ship boardings and inspections and humanitarian relief efforts.
It could also be applied to airport security efforts, and Patterson said the device could play a key role in speeding up long lines. But for now, Marine Acoustics will stick with its DARPA contract, developing other modules -- which Patterson declined to discuss -- for Navy and Marine Corps units.
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