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Have you ever had to ask someone if they need to defecate–in Korean? No? Well, with the Voxtec Phraselator P2, at least it’s now possible.

In 2001 Voxtec International was awarded a grant to develop a handheld, military-grade translation system. Early models were used in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003, and the current P2 model was released in 2004. Designed for the U.S. military as well as for law enforcement and emergency medical teams, Version 2.6 of the Phraselator is capable of translating over 100,000 preloaded phrases in over 40 languages, including Hindi, Croatian, Farsi, and Hebrew. You may never need to know how to say “Drop the weapon!” in Arabic or “Are you taking any medications?” in Sinhala, but the current model is definitely a sign of things to come. Though it’s not intended to take the place of a human translator, the P2′s straightforward interface, clear translations, and ease of use should mean it will lead the pack when an edition aimed at consumers hits the market in about 3 years.

The Phraselator’s bulkiness is intentional. The hardened polymer case and shock-mounted circuit boards are intended to withstand tough environments–but with dimensions of 7 by 3.5 by 2 inches, and weighing about 16 ounces, it doesn’t fit neatly into a pocket, though it does come with a handy kickstand. The language “translation” actually consists of a library of phrases that can be accessed and added to, depending on the user’s need.

The Phraselator is strictly a one-way translator, and many phrases include directions for gestural translation, such as, “Squeeze my hand once for yes.” English phrases are spoken or tapped in and the Phraselator responds in seconds with an MP3 translation in the target language that was recorded by a native speaker, as opposed to the synthesized voice that many other translators currently on the market employ. Some languages include a text translation as well.

The best thing about the Phraselator is that it works right out of the box–no voice training is needed. I turned it on in my cubicle and, before noticing that the volume was all the way up, I tapped into the Phraselator application and randomly chose a phrase to translate; suddenly my coworkers were alarmed by a thunderous Arabic male voice telling me that he needed to search my vehicle. After adjusting the volume, I explored a bit further.

As with other translators, the P2 doesn’t always understand what you say. Its accuracy seems to be around 75 percent, and if that’s the case then it will revert back to the last phrase it spoke. You have to speak clearly and deliberately; this is definitely a no-mumbling zone. Some phrases–such as “Which party are you currently a member of?”–come with an automatic function that records the response of whoever you’re talking to, presumably for later translation. These recordings are stored under the Record tab, where you can store up to 6 hours of audio.

The PDA-like Phraselator features a 3.5-inch full-color LCD touch screen and stylus, so it resembles a large, 1980′s prototype of a PDA. Startup is easy; after inserting the 7.2V 2400 mAH Lithium Polymer battery (which promises over 20 hours of battery life) and/or four AA batteries, as well as the removable 1GB SD card loaded with language modules, simply push the power button on the front. The Phraselator also comes with a 12V DC universal charger adapter and features an Intel PXA255 400-mHz processor, built-in noise canceling microphone, VOCON 3200 speech recognizer, weatherproof speaker, 256MB DRAM memory, 64MB Flash memory, day/night readable TFT, audio in/out 3.5mm interfaces, and a mini USB interface.

When you turn on the device, you’re greeted by a PC-looking desktop, complete with task bar and Windows Start button, which will lead you to typical Windows offerings: Programs, Favorites, Documents, and so on. In addition to the Phraselator translation application, the P2 comes loaded with Windows Explorer, Windows Media Player, Microsoft Word, and Internet Explorer; a small stylus-activated keyboard can be brought up from the task bar and used in any of the applications. The Phraselator application and a short training video occupy the desktop. The training video is incredibly simplistic, but it explains the central functions of the Phraselator in the most basic of terms. A double-click on the Phraselator application icon takes you straight to the language modules.

The current model features language modules like Counterinsurgency Operations, Field Medic, and Military Police. In each module folder is a list of phrases that can be activated in three ways: using voice activation through the Push-to-Talk button, tapping the desired phrase on the touchscreen, or using the toggle button to select the phrase. A drop-down menu of languages on the top of the screen makes switching between languages easy, though currently not all modules are available in all languages. You can search phrases, record conversations for later translation, control settings, and switch between modules using the tabs at the top of the screen. Volume control and battery life are displayed along the bottom of the application screen.

One of the Phraselator’s most useful features lets you input and record your own translations right on the handheld. The LAPD has created its own Crowd Control module with phrases such as “We’re going to be leading the march today,” in four languages. [Updated: 4/18/08] You can program the Phraselator to access these phrases through voice activation, and the ability to input your own phrases allows for a certain amount of freedom and molding of the product to your needs.

The next step for the Phraselator will be integrating a bidirectional language function. This would allow a real two-way conversation, with both English and target-language input and output capabilities. According to Voxtec’s director of sales and marketing Clayton Millis, a few such Phraselators exist in prototype stage within Voxtec, though data is still being collected. Phrases will still be preloaded to a certain degree, though the next-generation Phraselator will be trained to recognize the answers to some simple open-ended questions, such as, “How old are you?” One-way Spanish input and Korean input Phraselators also exist within Voxtec, though there’s no word on when these models will be made available.

A consumer edition of the Phraselator is currently being developed and is due out in about 3 years, Millis said. The price is not yet fixed but will probably be “several hundred dollars.” The consumer edition will be smaller, more compact, and packaged with a different set of software that will be more usable in tourist or everyday settings. Millis says features will include country-specific business traveler applications, cultural awareness tips, and history and facts about countries as well as proper etiquette and dinner manners.

If you just can’t wait to get your Star Trek on, the P2 is available for purchase directly from Voxtec for about $2,500.

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