When traveling in a foreign country, a phrase book might help you find the bathroom but you can’t go around asking strangers what every street sign and historical marker means. If research being done at Hewlett Packard’s Printing and Imaging Research Center bears fruit, an iPAQ will be able to do this for you.
According to the BBC, the research is centered around an iPAQ with a digital camera and a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet. When a user finds a sign in a language they don’t understand, they can take a picture of it. This image is then wirelessly sent to a system on the Internet which users optical character recognition (OCR) to pick out the letters and words. This text can then be translated into a language the user does speak and sent back to the user’s iPAQ.
The system is apparently quite flexible. The user doesn’t have to specify what language the sign is written in. The software can figure that out itself. Naturally, it has a few limitations, like the requirement to be in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The system is at the prototype stage now. The HP researchers haven’t said when they expect this visual translation system to be available to the public. HP has been working on it for at least 18 months.
Other companies are working on similar systems. IBM’s Almaden Research Center is developing the InfoScope. This also uses a Pocket PC and a digital camera to send images to a networked computer to be translated, but IBM hopes to eventually have the handheld itself be able to handle it. The company said last year the InfoScope should ready for a commercial release within the next several years.