Phraselator translates to civilian life

VoxTec, Inc., a manufacturer of handheld, talking translation devices ? a top emerging technology ?used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti, is making its foray into civilian life.

The Annapolis, Md.-based company was one of the first firms to manufacture bulky, talking PDAs, and it developed them specifically for U.S. soldiers stationed in countries where they didn't speak the language. The U.S. military has purchased VoxTec's Phraselator translation devices for the past two years.

Now VoxTec has designed some pilot-phase models for the private sector, in particular for health care and law enforcement agencies. But the company will not make any official announcements about the projects until mid-May, said Shannon Dooman, VoxTec's director of marketing and public relations. The Oneida County Sheriff's office in Oriskany, N.Y., already uses the devise and plans to order more.

VoxTec eventually wants to break into the consumer market with a less expensive, scaled-down version of the Phraselator to target, for instance, business travelers who need phrases in foreign languages, Dooman said. The company doesn't yet know when it will enter the consumer market, she added.

So far, the one-way translation device has been indispensable for U.S. troops in occupied countries. The military has purchased about 800 to 1,000 units for a base cost of $2,000 to $2,300 each, including hardware and translation software, Dooman said; the price fluctuates depending on additional training and support services purchased.

VoxTec has already received new orders from the U.S. military for 1,000 of its recently upgraded units.

Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, are showing interest as well, Dooman said.

"This device can be used in any industry," she said. "It's [a matter of] building out appropriate content to use in those markets."

Developed by a former Navy SEAL officer, the technology can produce predetermined phrases in 53 three different languages, though users get only four of the languages they need within a single module. Each unit uses a secure digital card that provides more than 15,000 spoken phrases, mostly used by the military.

In January, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review listed universal translation devices as one of the "10 emerging technologies that will change your world."

VoxTec, a division of Rhode Island-based Marine Acoustics Inc., is also interested in developing a two-way device that will translate respondents' verbal answers to users' questions, but there are no set plans yet.

Last week, VoxTec won the Small Business Innovation Research award at the annual Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Tech symposium in Anaheim, Calif. The Phraselator's development was originally funded by DARPA, the Department of Defense's central research and development organization.

Marine Acoustics furthered its development in 2001 when the company received a grant from SBIR, a program that provides money for startup technology projects at small companies.

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