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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Digital cam translates in a snap
Hewlett Packard's handheld camera translator
Handy translator cam could make phrase books redundant
Most would agree it is handy to have signs which warn you of dangers like shark-infested waters.

If those signs are in a language you do not understand though, life for the traveller can be tricky.

So US researchers have come up with a prototype camera that does away with phrase books and translates signs almost instantly using the internet.

It combines a pocket computer, a digital camera and a wireless internet connection.

See and snap

Phrase books and dictionaries are already becoming increasingly redundant with the growing popularity of gadgets which translate as you talk or type.

The HP researchers however, recognised sign posts in a different language can be trickier to translate. Being unable to pronounce the words correctly can mean you could end up with a very different meaning.

Dr Howard Taub, Director of the Printing and Imaging Research Centre at HP labs in Paolo Alto in California let Go Digital, the BBC World Service radio programme, try out their sign recognition and translation system.

Hewlett Packard's handheld camera translator
This is really the advantage right now of using the internet. The internet has got software on it to do all sorts of translations so from Spanish, Russian, to French
Dr Howard Taub, HP Labs

The idea is that by using a wireless connection to the internet, the device can be a handy camera which makes use of translation resources on the net.

"You don't have to do anything else but look at a sign you don't understand and shoot a picture of it, a very natural thing to do," said Dr Taub.

"In one nice package it is an iPaq handheld computer and plugged into it is a camera attachment to it, so it can start to act like a digital camera.

"There is also a little wireless card plugged into it as well so I can communicate through the network.

"I can send the bits of information up somewhere so it can be processed in some way from the handheld device," he explained.

After taking the picture of the sign, it will appear on the camera's display with the translation, having looked it up on the internet through a wireless connection.

It will also translate virtually any language, according to Dr Taub and it makes the process of understanding something a lot quicker and more convenient.

"One of the advantages of all of this is that I am not translating words. I could have my translating dictionary with me and pull out individual words.

"But the fact is the computer can handle phrases and sentences and eventually it will handle whole paragraphs," said Dr Taub.

For example, it will soon be able to handle a translation of a plaque at a historical site, something which would be much harder to do using just a dictionary.

Telling the difference

The researchers say the prototype's "imaging processing magic" is able to handle multiple languages too.

Ukrainian road sign
Road signs can be hard to translate using a dictionary
If the tourist comes across lots of signs in many languages, the device knows what letters should look like and so can sort out which language it is.

If it is not a real word, then the device can exclude it.

"This is really the advantage right now of using the internet. The internet has got software on it to do all sorts of translations so from Spanish, Russian, to French.

"You name it, you can find websites that have free software and services to do any of those translations."

Although it is cleverly able to tell what are words and what are letters, it still might have problems translating certain abbreviations.

It also still relies on the user being near a wi-fi "hotspot", an area which allows you to connect to the internet without having to plug a cable into your computer.

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