Translating smartphone is boon for DoCoMo

'Intelligent' service targets firms that regularly deal with foreigners

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Smartphones are getting smarter. Maybe nearly as smart as a multilingual interpreter.

This month, NTT DoCoMo Inc. began its second trial of a translation service that converts Japanese into 10 languages — English, Korean, Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Thai and Indonesian — and vice versa.

Japan’s biggest telecom carrier said the service seems to have high potential, especially among companies that regularly communicate with foreigners.

While there are still challenges, such as improving the accuracy of the translation and establishing a profitable business model, the service is part of the firm’s strategy to make its network more “intelligent” to differentiate it from rival carriers amid stiffening competition.

“Our company is about creating communications. By incorporating translation capability, we think people can enjoy a broader range of communications,” said Akihiro Nishimoto, assistant manager of network services and architecture group of the core network development department at the DoCoMo R&D Center.

The service, which is available as an application for DoCoMo smartphones powered by Google Inc.’s Android operating system, can be operated in two modes.

The first helps people in a face-to-face conversation communicate by using a smartphone as an interpreter.

For instance, in the English-Japanese translation setting, if a person says “Hello. How are you?” into the phone, the device will display the phrase in both Japanese and English. An automated voice will then say the translated version.

In this way, the users hold a conversation by taking turns speaking into the phone. If the speakers are not together, they can have a conversation over the phone. The only difference is a second handset is necessary.

If an English speaker is talking to a Japanese, the original English phrases will be delivered first and then a Japanese translation will follow. The text will also be displayed, just as in the face-to-face communication mode.

However, only three languages — English, Chinese and Korean — are available for the phone conversation mode.

If the phrases are concise and not very complicated, the translations are fairly accurate.

Voice recognition is affected, however, by ambient noise. It can also be thrown off by dialects.

“There are still a lot of things that need to be improved,” admitted Nishimoto of DoCoMo.

“We’ll be working to improve the accuracy of translation and recognition. We also hope to increase the number of languages.”

Because the application accesses Internet databases, the wealth of available vocabulary and phrases must be increased to improve the accuracy.

Another hurdle is coming up with a profitable business model. Nishimoto said DoCoMo is still analyzing the needs of the market.

Through the first trial, he said the carrier found interest from companies that regularly interact with foreigners, including Universal Studios Japan and LaLaport Management Co., which operates large shopping malls. The city of Hiroshima also found the service useful.

With the rapid spread of smartphones, DoCoMo is seeking to survive in a competitive market by increasing the “intelligence” of its network, and language interpretation can play an important role in the strategy.

Before the surge of smartphones, major carriers in Japan had more control over the mobile communications business because Internet content was provided through the carriers’ own systems.

In the case of DoCoMo, its iMode Internet service was a platform for content providers.

Now that the main platform holders in the smartphone era are Google and Apple Inc., the carriers are at risk of becoming mere infrastructure providers.

Nishimoto said the translation service is one way for DoCoMo to avoid that path.

The second trial kicked off June 1 and is targeting 10,000 users. The service is available at the DoCoMo site. To apply, interested parties must access the site with a smartphone and fill out a survey. During the trial, the service is free except for making international calls.

The trial will end in September, and DoCoMo plans to officially launch the service within the current fiscal year.