Not Bilingual? $25 iPhone App for That Translates Spoken English and Spanish

Jibbigo, which debuted last month, breaks new engineering ground for iPhone apps: It's the only speech-to-speech translation app in the App Store. Speak into the iPhone in either English or Spanish and in a few seconds a voice translates your words. This $25 app, which has humanitarian origins, packs sophisticated technology.

Tue, November 10, 2009

CIO — As part of a humanitarian calling, iPhone-toting doctors in Pittsburgh fly to Honduras to help build clinics and provide healthcare in poor villages. One of the first obstacles they face: gibberish. Many can't speak Spanish.

They lug around rugged, thousand-dollar laptops with expensive speech-to-speech translation software to communicate. But the laptops prove clunky and impractical, especially when the doctors are trying to converse with strangers.

Enter Mobile Technologies, headed by Alex Waibel, a professor of computer science and language technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, which had been working on an app for the iPhone 3GS that would marry sophisticated speech-to-speech translation with the ease of an iPhone.

Waibel gave the app, called Jibbigo (a play on the word "gibberish"), to the doctors. The price: $25.

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Although far from perfect, Jibbigo is arguably the smartest iPhone app, a truly remarkable engineering feat. It's the only speech-to-speech translation app in the App Store. Just speak into the iPhone in either English or Spanish, and in a few seconds a voice translates your words. Translations also appear in written form.

The app, which publicly debuted on the App Store late last month, is extremely easy to use, in my experience. If either the text or voice translation is inaccurate, simply shake the iPhone to start over. In fact, the app is so easy to use that one forgets the complexity happening in the background.

How it Works

Mobile Technologies spent three years developing the underpinning technology, including a year spent solely on the iPhone piece. The trick was to develop clever algorithms for small platforms that tap into the iPhone's considerable processing power and memory. This enables fast translation without an Internet connection so that people can use the app in areas where there isn't much coverage.

"That's important for travelers and especially for humanitarian aid workers who venture beyond the big cities," Waibel says.

Waibel says the goal was to make the app consumer-friendly. Speed and accuracy were top priorities, as well as a simple user interface. With speed, the app needed to translate faster from speech to speech than text to speech. Otherwise, people would rather type out the words they need translated.

Still, one gets a sense of the app's complexity from the start, when the app takes 10 seconds to fire up. The app has translation-probability scenarios and a 40,000-word vocabulary tuned to the needs of travelers, as well as for medical situations. The app is not designed for, say, a lecture.

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