From Uhura’s wireless headset to Starfleet’s PADD, the venerable Star Trek franchise is no stranger to influencing and/or predicting the gadgets we use today. While we’re still a long way from seeing warp drives and holodecks, another well-known Trek tech, the universal translator, appears to be well on its way. We’re not just talking about translation apps on smartphones either. If globalization-friendly hardware like the Sigmo gets its way, world travelers will soon have a dedicated tool to help them overcome the language barrier, wherever they may be.
Sigmo, which connects to iOS and Android devices via Bluetooth and translates some 25 languages (as of this writing), officially blew the doors off its own Indiegogo campaign last October, raising almost $250,000 on a $15,000 goal. Those who donated should be receiving their early adopter models sometime this month — and that means retail models shouldn’t be far behind. With similar products like Google Translate also upping their game, it’s easy to see how the world will be a much smaller place in the near future — in a good way.
While the average smart device owner is probably a little more tech-literate than most, a smartphone or tablet does not a guru make. Some users struggle to perform semi-advanced functions like software updates, while others can hardly get to the dial screen without asking a friend (or their grandchild) for help. Those users in particular may struggle with standard translation applications: installing and setting up many popular mobile translators can be a hairy proposition, with in-app configurations and additional downloads a-plenty.
In that regard, Sigmo is shaping up to be a home run. Though the multi-lingual gadget does require some moderate tweaking (users have to connect it with their phone via Bluetooth and download a corresponding app), this self-contained, all-in-one translation source is far easier than the experience offered by several popular apps. This demo video does a great job of explaining the device — showing individuals using the mobile translator to find out how to get to a train station and order breakfast in a foreign country.
It’s natural to be skeptical of a pitch video, but if the process is even half as easy as what’s shown in the demo, you can expect Sigmo to become a surefire hit among jet-setters, work travelers and others in need of fast, simple translation with as little hassle as possible.
Ease of use isn’t Sigmo’s only selling point. The above-mentioned Indiegogo page spells out two “important aims” the creators hope to achieve in the future:
Although Sigmo is still perfecting the offline translation feature, the device currently lets users make and receive regular phone calls through its speaker and mic. You can also talk to Siri through Sigmo, but not for translation purposes. Like other Bluetooth speakers currently available on the market, users can communicate with Apple’s famed digital assistant without picking up, or waking up/unlocking, their iPad or iPhone by pressing a button on the Sigmo device. Finally, the page boasts low battery consumption, with rough estimates of 300 hours standby and eight hours talk time.
It’s hard to deny Sigmo’s cool factor, but from a purely technological standpoint, there’s nothing too exciting going on here. Not that that’s a bad thing. Instead of bloating the hardware/software with extra, useless features that make the average consumer scratch their heads, the gadget seems like one of those things most technologist would see and think, “Man, I should have thought of that.”
We’ve already had translators of some sort on our phones and tablets for a while, including programs that can transmute printed text — think road signs and menus — in real time, like Word Lens. Sigmo’s difference? The device has the potential to simplify the translation process even as it adds extra hardware and software to the equation. Instead of pulling your phone out, selecting languages, making your statement, showing it to your conversational partner, having them speak into your phone and so on, Sigmo reduces the steps to a little preconfiguration and, when translation time comes, a simple press of a button.
That’s not to say existing translation services aren’t worth their salt. Google Translate, a hugely popular web/mobile service from the fine folks at Mountain View, is arguably the de facto standard here, and with good reason. It’s quick and a heck of a lot easier than whipping out an international dictionary. It also supports spoken and written input, though it could be argued that the spoken-word components of the service are still mostly designed for individual translation efforts and not conversations.
In fact, the conversation angle is probably Sigmo’s greatest potential strength. Any technology that can help make two-language conversations faster and more natural will be useful to a broad cross-section of international travelers, and connecting it to a mobile device is also a no-brainer. Leveraging hardware built into every smartphone (powerful processors, wireless networking chips and so on) means Sigmo’s creators don’t have to put the same stuff in their product, allowing them to offer their invaluable device for $50 rather than $500-plus like some phones and tablets.Assisting globalizationSigmo is the rare technology that simplifies by addition. Google Translate is great, as are several other translation apps available on Google Play and the App Store, but the vast majority of those apps and services are designed for single-user translation. Nothing we’ve seen supports conversation as well as Sigmo appears to — at least in that video. If you’ve ever tried to get directions to your hotel, or worse, negotiate a business contract in an unfamiliar language, you undoubtedly understand just how huge it really is.
Will Sigmo achieve its full potential? It’ll be hard to say for sure until the consumer reviews start rolling in. On one hand, the concept is rock-solid: International tourists and businesspeople have searched for the best way to make two-language conversation easier since the birth of the first sailboat. On the other, it almost seems too good to be true, especially considering the number of “important aims” developers plan to release after the product has launched. For now, it’s a game of wait-and-see, and with the first batch of early-adopter units bound to come out any day now, we look forward to seeing what the critics have to say about Sigmo — no matter what language they speak.