Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Dear Robyn,

Those inventions you came up with in your last blog post are great. The “hand-held machine that would ‘hear’ any conversation then ‘instantly caption’ speech” is an awesome idea. Imagine that, being able to walk into any movie theatre or watch any TV programme without having to worry about whether captions are provided or not. Or see what someone is saying if you can’t quite hear or lipread them. That would solve some really annoying problems if translators were readily available. I am surprised they aren’t already though because as far as I can tell the technology is more or less available now to do this. However, it doesn’t seem to be designed especially for translating entire conversations on portable devices for anyone who wants to have a complete conversation or, if it could also instantly translate one language to another – travellers wanting to chat with people who speak a different language. That said, I don’t see why it couldn’t because the following technology does exist at present:

  • Dragonspeak for iPhone which can be used to convert spoken words into text for sending text messages. Unfortunately looks like it is designed mostly for short messages, not conversations, but the regular PC installation is used for creating entire Word documents.
  • Voice recognition software in cellphones used mainly for controlling functions like “voice dial”.
  • Filtering software such as is already used in your implant to reduce annoying background noise in busy situations. Something you’d probably want the device to do if it is to translate a single conversation in a noisy environment like a cafe.
  • To have a built in mic, a clear screen and portability. All of these things are extremely common on iPhones and other types of cellphones and portable devices.

So really what you are after mainly requires the integration of the above but with the software having a focus on translating long conversations. And to go a step further there are already rough language translators, for example  Google Translate which doesn’t do a bad job. I use it often when I am reading the German newspaper. It’s always close enough to understand the translation even though it is not perfect. It would be enough for travellers to speak to locals without any knowledge of their language and be understood.

I had a look around on the net expecting some complete technology like this to leap out at me that already does what you want but couldn’t find anything easily. But it looks like all the technology to create a more purpose built solution is there so maybe all that is needed is for someone to integrate it all and make a downloadable app for popular phones and devices.

Your animal interpreter machine is a neat idea too. I would love to know exactly what my pets are saying to me also.  Granted, it’s fairly easy for us humans to work out the basics of what Fluffy and Fido are saying already without extra help. We do share basic psychological similarities with animals after all. Fluffy running up to you when you walk in the door, smooching your leg and purring loudly means “hello”. Fido growling loudly while chewing a bone is almost certain to mean “back off buster, this is all mine! Don’t make me add your leg to my collection”. Different animals seem to have little trouble understanding basics either. The cat would understand Fido’s growling also and leave well alone. Mind you, having said we share similarities with animals, if you come running up to me and smooch my leg at the airport or growl at the dinner table I am NOT going to come to Blenheim to visit you!

But not all animal sounds are that easy to interpret unless you are an animal psychologist. My parrot Gibson makes some sounds that I can recognize what they are easily. Squawking grumpily at me when I cover his cage at night means “hey! I haven’t finished watching the tele yet!” and Dave and Harry (my canaries) singing pretty tunes means “hey girls, we’re over here!” But sometimes if I am talking to Gibson he’ll come right up close to my face and purr loudly like a cat (I kid you not). We don’t have a cat and he has never heard one so this must be legitimate bird language. I have no idea what he is saying and I’d love to know! He could be telling me anything, “hey man check this out, I can do cat impersonations” or “hmmm yes, I agree with you totally, Turing Machines would work better with five heads” or “hey honey, want to come back to my place?” (which is a bit disturbing since he says this to Phil also….) But it would be cool if I could find out in a few seconds what he is really saying or tell him something in bird speak. “Gibson, please clean up your cage” would be a good start…

Another thing I’ve actually seriously considered inventing myself before is a portable device you can put on your table in noisy cafes or places that will filter out background noise so you can hear the people you are talking to easily. I personally find it really annoying trying to chat with my friends in cafes when there is loud background music blaring and everyone shouts over it to be heard. Seems to be a really common complaint so I thought of these two solutions.

  1. A directional white or pink noise generator that masks out some of the background noise at a certain radius away from you. Preferably installed in your cellphone so you can take it anywhere, the idea being you just stick it on the corner of the table and it creates a private space for you – like taking your own walls everywhere. This sort of thing is used already in a bigger sizes – namely the fountains that are installed in the middle of shopping centres and food courts are there to cover up competing conversations. When I asked my Dad (an experienced electronics whiz) about this idea he revealed that in the 1970s his company was involved in inventing something like this for office blocks so whole buildings could generate white noise and make areas people could hear each other better in. The idea didn’t catch on at the time unfortunately, but then, new clever ideas often don’t catch on the first time even though they do years later.There might be some problems with this though. Firstly any unit would have to produce a signal of good enough quality to work. Bit of a challenge on a cellphone. And as my Dad points out, our local shopping centre probably got rid of the fountain because it made people run off to the toilet more often and the Centre’s cleaning costs went up! Perhaps that was the reason the technology his company were developing never took off either. Who wants their employees spending the whole day in the bathroom instead of working!
  2. The second idea is reverse phasing. The unit samples background noise a certain distance away from you, reverse phases it and emits the reversed (inside out) signal again. The effect of this is to cancel out sounds altogether so they become silent. Although that sounds like science fiction this is a simple trick we used to use in the recording studio for removing undesirable sounds from recordings (like record crackle, generator sounds from live gigs or to remove the lead vocal from a recording so someone else could sing over the remaining instrumental tracks). Some people have been playing around with this already with the intent of making say, vehicles that are silent. But realistically, who the hell wants to be run over because they didn’t hear the Mac truck coming down the road? People would get used to this and learn to look more carefully, but I’m sure animals would be completely confused. It would also be inconvenient for blind people who navigate by sound. An odd side effect of that could be that if you didn’t produce the reverse phased signal 100% in sync with the original you could get flanging – a sort of strange, out of this world swooshing sound that musicians use deliberately in recordings to make psychodelic effects (e.g. guitars sounding like they are flying past on jet engines.) So, considering live sound might always have a slight delay between sampling and reproduction, this might produce an effect that is either slightly annoying at one extreme or makes people feel like they’ve been teleported back to flower power days and have been smoking something illegal at worst! And even more disconcerting would be that if some of the sampled sound happened to be in the exact same frequency you were talking in it would seem as if your own voice is cutting out! Now that would be freaky!
  3. The third idea is the best of all and comes from my Dad. Obtain some cotton wool, some string and two empty tin cans. Poke two holes in the bottom of the cans and attach string. Then stuff cotton wool in one ear. Now you have the perfect solution. Just hold a can up to the ear without wool, pull string tight and you and your companion can have a private conversation no problem! Damn! I knew the best solutions were the simplest!

Somehow I don’t know that this invention is very far away. The ideas I’ve put there use standard audio physics that is very commonly understood by sound engineers. But there are also inventions with hypersonic sound (or rather, producing sound using ultrasound). In the video at the end of my post, Woody Norris shows off his invention which places sound wherever you want it and can be used for applications like directional advertising in supermarkets (you hear an ad only when you are standing directly in front of it), or, as he notes, the military could use it to create the sound of fake troop movements in places there are no troops! He also has inventions for cancelling out sound like I’ve just mentioned and came up with an application I never thought off – cancelling out the sound of your partner snoring! Now that is something I could do with!

Morgan 🙂

Video of Woody Norris talking at TED about Hypersonic Sound

Image by Per Hardestam

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