Studying French through high school and university and then spending a year in France on exchange, language tools like Google Translate were my best friends, helping me decipher what it was that my lecturer on the history of France at sea in the 17th century was actually on about.
A new tool looking to help facilitate multilingual communication in real-time is DoTalk, a startup founded in Cairns by Reno Nicastro.
The DoTalk platform allows users to message each other via text or speech, with the each user’s communications translated into the other’s language of choice instantly. The app currently supports instant text translation for 90 languages, and instant voice translation for 50.
Nicastro felt the need for such a platform after travelling to Mongolia three years ago to meet with business partners for a fundraising project.
“Sitting through eight hour meetings with potential partners and a translator, I felt a sense of frustration communicating through a middleman,” Nicastro explained.
“Envisioning how great it would be to have a laptop in front of us both, so we could speak with each other in our own native languages and cut down meeting times by two-thirds, I decided then and there that the world needed a simple solution to allow two parties to speak together, whether they happen to be in the same room or across the other side of the world.”
The DoTalk team has melded a number of translation APIs and speech recognition tools to develop the platform, with the main problems to solve being speed and accuracy of the translation.
“Successful translation is about translating the sentence quickly. If the translation takes too long, the service is not helpful and we will lose the user,” he said.
“Translations in most languages are 80 to 90 percent accurate, other languages 70 to 80 percent accurate. We needed to ensure the translations were accurate enough that the user would get value from using DoTalk versus some other method of translation, [which] might be a physical person or other software.”
The app works by having a user register and pick their chosen language. From there they can invite friends, noting each other user’s native language. They can then begin messaging each other, with messages translated in real time if they are working in different languages.
With development funded by a network of friends and family, Nicastro has focused much time on testing, travelling to five countries last year to see what different people need from the app. He said around 3,000 people then signed up for the app’s beta, from which the key learning gathered was that keeping sentences short and sweet leads to greater accuracy of translations.
“The longer the sentence, the more opportunity for errors to creep in,” he said.
To combat this, the app reminds users that shorter sentences translate better. There is, of course, still the issue of cultural context and expressions getting lost in translation – that’s how Google Translate always got my class into trouble with our French homework – but this will likely become less of an issue as the system learns.
When it comes to users, Nicastro defines DoTalk’s target market as simply “anyone that can gain value from talking to people who speak a different language”.
He said, “This could be in business, by helping a supplier and customer communicate. It could be in tourism by helping a traveller and a resort or restaurant communicate better or it could be via a student wanting to talk to another student somewhere else in the world.”
The platform has a free tier for one on one conversations, with a premium subscription, starting at US$7.99 per month if paid monthly, enabling group chats. The startup is also building out an ‘app exchange’, or third party integrations to add more to its service, particularly important as it looks to develop DoTalk as a business solution.
The scope for the app here is significant, with the global language services market – incorporating the linkes of translation, globalisation, and interpretation – estimated to grow to $45 billion by 2020 as businesses become increasingly global.
Among the other companies working in the space is Doppler Labs, creator of the ‘smart listening’ Here One earbuds, which allow the user to set them up to block out certain sounds but allow others, such as a doorbell or phone ringing, to get through.
The company’s big plans for the Here One include real-time, in-ear translation, with Doppler Labs’ vice president of research and development Jeff Baker saying, “Language is audio, and it’s a pretty amazing thing to do, to alter language.”
Image: the DoTalk team. Source: Supplied.