Picture the scene. You’ve had a hard day seeing the sights in Japan and all you want to do is head to the nearest restaurant for some cuisine and a relaxing evening chatting over the highlights of the day.
But one look at the menu and you’re all at sea, perplexed by the language that’s staring back at you. Most people who have dined out in a foreign country will be familiar with the quandary. For British tourists holidaying in Europe, this often isn’t a problem, as there are often English menus on hand, but go further afield and the scene can be different.
But that could all be about to change.
NTT Docomo, Japan’s leading telecoms firm, is developing glasses that can translate foreign text as you read it. The augmented reality product, effectively NTT’s answer to Google Glass, is called Intelligent Glasses and was previewed at the Ceatec consumer electronics show in Tokyo earlier this year.
It is still in development, but an early prototype shows that the glasses work by projecting text in the wearer’s native tongue over hard-to-understand signs and menus, taking around five seconds to perform a text-based translation.
It is thought that NTT is readying the glasses to be launched for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, to capitalise on the number of tourists who will visit Japan to enjoy the Games. The head-mounted display can translate Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean languages and could prove particularly useful to British tourists, especially those visiting some of Japan’s more remote destinations where non-Japanese language text can be hard to find.
The smart glasses are also able to turn flat surfaces into ‘touchscreens’, allowing the user to activate tags using a finger ring, and are also wired with facial recognition technology that can show someone’s name and job title when you meet them.
‘Instant language translation’
DTT Docomo said in a statement: “Character recognition technology enables instant language translation for users travelling abroad and reading restaurant menus and other documents.”
IDC consumer technology consultant Jonathan Gaw told the BBC that wearable technologies have “tremendous potential, but face a lot of hurdles”. “Small-bore applications like on-the-fly menu translation won’t sell a pair of smart glasses on their own, but a large eco system of applications might,” he said.
While tech firms race to develop the next wave of wearable computing, including smartwatches and headsets, it remains to be seen how popular they will be with consumers.
New research from Georgia Tech, for example, shows that portable electronic devices placed on the collar, torso, waist or pants may cause awkwardness, embarrassment or strange looks. The study surveyed people in the US and South Korea to gain better understanding of perceptions of the use of electronic devices meshed with everyday clothing. The researchers found that the wrist and forearm were the most preferred locations for ‘e-textiles’.
It remains to be seen whether NTT’s Intelligent Glasses will be ready in time for Tokyo 2020 but they could represent a revolution in wearable technology, and in the way in which foreign language text is translated.
But as tech website the Register pointed out: “They could certainly be popular among tourists to Japan in 2020, although having struggled with hilariously mis-translated menus many times before abroad, those algorithms will have to be spot on for the glasses to be useful.”