DARPA-Developed Device Bridges Language Divides
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 25, 2003 – Non-linguist U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have been able to communicate with local citizens by using a paperback-book-sized device called the phraselator.
Co-developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and private contractors, the phraselator uses computer chips to translate English phrases into as many as 30 foreign language equivalents, noted Army Lt. Col. James Bass, the project manager.
Users either speak into the device, which translates the English into the foreign-equivalent phrase, Bass explained, or they can punch a button to call up the desired phrase.
"The English-speaking operator can speak from a series of phrases ranging from just a few dozen to as high as 3,500 phrases," Bass pointed out, "characterized by such issues as force protection, medical triage and medical first- response."
The device was originally developed for military medical usage, Bass pointed out. He said newer devices contain phraseology on refugee reunification and searches for weapons of mass destruction. They even issue queries about infrastructure requirements, such as "Do you need water?" "Do you need electricity?" the lieutenant colonel noted.
And an improved phraselator with better sound quality is now being readied for fielding, Bass said.
Civil affairs troops, Bass pointed out, can hook up a phraselator into a bullhorn-amplifier to ask locals what sort of humanitarian supplies they may need, while infantry soldiers can query on the whereabouts of enemy weapons caches or the placement of land mines.
The phraselator "looks just like a Palm [Pilot] on steroids," Bass remarked, noting it's compact for field use, weighing in at about 20 ounces, with dimensions of 4- inches-wide by 6-inches-tall.
In 1999, Bass noted, DARPA began working with private industry to develop a translator for military medical usage. Early versions of these devices, he added, were laptop-computer-sized.
Bass said the civilian contractor, Marine Acoustics, came back to DARPA with the suggestion to make a hand-held, tactical version of the phraselator.
The smaller phraselator was demonstrated and validated for use during the Victory Strike military exercise held in Poland on Sept. 10, 2001, Bass recalled.
Terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Seven days later, Bass said he successfully petitioned DARPA to start fast-track procurement of the phraselator, including an improvement program.
Bass said the phraselator was brought to Afghanistan by U.S. troops in February 2002. Reports from the field on the device "were glowing," he noted.
From that field experience, follow-on devices were made water and sand resistant, as well as more powerful, Bass remarked.
"Feedback is the breakfast of champions," the lieutenant colonel asserted, noting that such input has also resulted in larger, easier-to-use buttons on the device.
Today, project Babylon -- a three-year DARPA program -- encompasses all military phraselator development, Bass pointed out. The goal, he noted, is a two-way phraselator that can translate respondents' answers to users' queries.
This two-way phraselator has been publicly demonstrated at an international linguist organization's annual meeting in Berlin, and to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Bass noted.
The improved device is slated for demonstration to senior U.S. Special Operations officials and to senior DARPA leadership.
"If it's ready for 'prime time,' we produce some prototypes and get the units out," Bass explained.
However, if the new phraselator "needs a little more tweaking," Bass pointed out, then, "we will still deliver it to selected, enthusiastic people who will" critique the device.
Large-scale production of the more complex device, he noted, "will be on hold until we get all the bugs out, and will depend on Service interest in purchasing quantities of the devices."
A U.S. Special Forces soldier uses the phraselator device with the debriefing module to determine where enemies have gone, and where weapons and explosives are stored in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Click photo for screen-resolution image.)