So pretty much on a lark, a guy named Yossarian Seattle sat down and whipped up something that could change the world.
"It started off with me wanting to have a go at building a heads-up display for a bit of fun," he says to me via IM. "That coupled with the fact that I'm doing some real life work with translation at the moment brought about the idea." Relatively new to Second Life, Yossarian first did some digging to see if someone else had used SL's XML capabilities to create a translator, and not finding any*, he began creating one of his own.
"Given that the number of non-English speakers is increasing all the time [in SL], I figured it would be a handy tool to have," he continues. (Indeed, nearly 40% of Second Life residents are now from outside the US)
Still in Beta, Yossarian's translator operates through a HUD that attaches to your display, allowing you to quickly switch between 10 languages. During an impromptu trial run yesterday, I happened to spot SL visionary Gwyneth Llewelyn in-world, and knowing she was in Portugal, I called her over to an oceanside, and started chatting in her native tongue.
A video of our conversation is here-- view as a Windows Media file for best quality, or via YouTube here. As you'll see, simple sentences come across more or less coherently, while the translation starts running off the rails, the more complex they become. What's striking is how quickly each of our sentences is translated, coming and going, processed in less than a second.
"I'm using the httprequest [script] capabilities of SL to call out to external translation services via my own website," Yossarian tells me. "[It's] pretty fast (about 0.1 seconds) thus the translator speed." He sends the data out to his website, where it's run through several on-queue translation services like Babelfish, then returns to the world in less than a breath.
And just like that, untold vistas of possibility emerge. Because if interacting as avatars is more emotionally engaging to us than watching video or reading words on a screen (and that seems to be the case), and if doing so with people from different countries around the world improves our attitudes toward them (and that too, seems to be true), what happens when yet another international barrier to direct communication is broken down?
Yossarian Seattle's HUD comes in ten languages, and so far, in addition to Portuguese, I've tried French, German, and Chinese with residents who speak those tongues-- each time, they've been at least partially successful. (There doesn't even seem to be any delay displaying Asian or Arabic language characters, either.) Switching from one to another is a simple single-click on the desired country icon, and the translation channel adjusts immediately.
Here's a run-through of speaking the same sentence in ten tongues, in under 60 seconds:
To be sure, there's still many translation kinks to work out, and diplomats engaged in high-stakes negotiations are not likely to use Yossarian's HUD any time soon. Still, it's already more than adequate for casual speech. (And with enough people using his HUD, you have to think a database of commonly-used sentences could be compiled and Google-ized into a powerful, folksonomic translator.)
The chief impediment now, as it turns out, is cost.
"If I was to distribute it widely," Yossarian Seattle explains, "then a charge would be needed to cover my website hosting costs. The bandwidth could get quite high with a large number of users." So he's thinking it'll be sold on a commercial basis. As with other things, lowering one barrier to world understanding raises another, but this time at least, one has to believe it's a worthwhile climb.
* Note: There are at least two other resident-created translator devices in various stages of Beta development, from Hank Ramos and Max Case (pictured below), whose delayed Babbler has existed in some form for over a year.