Mono-linguistic web users rejoiced when voice recognition was added to Google translate a few months back, and as the Big G demonstrated early versions of its new “conversation mode”, many observers proclaimed it had truly conquered real-time language translation. The truth, however, is that happened five years ago, and it happened in Britain, thanks to a different company altogether.

It was 2006, two years before anyone had heard of an Android smartphone. Sharp’s engineers and scientists were working away at Sharp Laboratories of Europe, nestled in the quiet outskirts of Oxford.

After 14 years of innovation, they’d already produced the world’s first glasses-free 3D screens for Japanese mobile phones, the world’s first food-sensing microwave using neural network technology, and text-based translation software for word processors. But next, they were going vocal.

Building on their existing text translation tools, Sharp’s scientists had created a prototype speech-to-speech Pocket Translator. It had the appearance of a PDA, with a monochrome touchscreen, speakers and a microphone, but it did something very special. Something Google would not match for a full five years.

The prototype Pocket Translator could listen to spoken Japanese, internally convert it to text, run that text through a translation algorithm and use text-to-speech technology to output spoken English with a 90% reliability. Its screen showed written text of the speech it interpreted, and the device could even double as an MP3 player.

Unveiled at the CEATEC 2006 conference in Japan, it wowed audiences and drew sci-fi comparisons. Effectively Sharp’s handheld gizmo had made the Babel fish from Douglas Adams’  Hitchhiker’s Guide novels a reality.

Today, only two prototypes exist. One of which sits as a quiet monument to the ingenuity of the scientists at Sharp Laboratories of Europe in a display case in its reception. It is rarely powered up, and often overlooked but its impact on the pantheon of technological innovation should never be forgotten.

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