Strap on your Spock ears Star Trek fans, the age of universal translators is approaching. The Disrupt SF conference recently wrapped up and Vocre has won both the Best Mobile App award and the Audience Choice award. Vocre, created by myLanguage, is the latest real time voice translation app for your iPhone. Simply speak into your phone, flip the phone over, and Vocre will speak for you in any of six languages (with more on the way). Using the accelerometer in the iPhone allows Vocre to theoretically give you a ‘touchless’ and more natural way of having a conversation in a foreign tongue. Check out myLanguage’s Disrupt presentation in the video below, followed by a commercial for the new product. Can Vocre compete with Google Translate Conversation Mode, Jibbigo, and other real time voice translation apps on the market? Disrupt SF, Robert Scoble, and many others seem to think so, but I’m not sure any of these products are ready for prime-time.
Disrupt is TechCrunch’s launch competition and startup networking event where many young companies find the fame and fortune they need to reach the next level. myLanguage co-founders Damien Dalli and Andrew Lauder passed their time in front of the Disrupt judges showing off Vocre’s quick and easy voice translations using the accelerometer leveraging interface:
First thing’s first: Vocre rhymes with ‘hooray’ not ‘mediocre’. Which is fitting because Vocre really is amazing. In a moment I’m going to get really cynical, but let’s just take a second now to marvel at how far translation technology has come. Vocre lets you talk into your phone and have it speak in a different language clearly and audibly. And it’s quick! This is straight out of science fiction. It’s absolutely amazing. I’m in awe that we live in time where technology allows us to virtually disregard the language barrier. It blows my mind.
Here’s myLanguage’s equally excited commercial for Vocre:
Now for the cynicism. There are three essential components of modern voice translations: speech to text, text translation, and text to speech. Vocre is really only responsible for the middle part. They are leveraging Nuance for speech to text and iSpeech for text to speech. Don’t get me wrong, those are both superb products and great choices, but they make me question what makes Vocre unique. Even their text translations (the part that’s actually proprietary to Vocre) is built off of an earlier platform: the myLanguage Pro app. As beautiful as Vocre may be, it’s mostly recycled/re-imagined tech.
More fuel for cynicism comes from their business model. While the actual Vocre app is free for any of your iOS devices, you pay for the translations. Each and every translation. At the moment, you receive 10 gratis when you download. After that the next 10 will cost you a $1 (or 100 for $9). Ten cents a pop wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so easy to screw up the interface. Flipping the phone around too soon, or even making a gesture, can trigger the recorder or turn it off. Of my ten free translations I wasted four. Even if there wasn’t a 40% attrition rate, I hate the idea of having to buy in-app currency to get the translator to work.
What if we ignored these complaints…would Vocre beat its competitors then? Honestly I don’t think so. The really unique part of this app is the text translations that myLanguage has built up by crowd-sourcing results from myLanguage Pro (and other apps). Their software knows about 1.5 million English words. Impressive? Sure, but Google Translate knows at least that many. After working with Vocre and comparing it to the Google Translation app, I found little to no difference in the phrases it could handle and the ones it failed to translate well. They’re about the same…only Google is free (for now).
In fact, as happy as I am to be living at the dawn of the universal translator era, I have to admit that the practicality of these applications is limited. With current processing speed and memory you have to choose between a cloud-based application (Vocre, Google Translate) that requires a data plan to work or a self-contained app (Jibbigo) that only works with one language pair. All the speech to text and text to speech solutions are spotty. They require a lot of training, and that means that the semi-drunk Frenchman you’re trying to get a translation from won’t be understood well. Personally, I find that my voice (in any language) gives these programs fits. It always takes me several tries to get myself heard correctly. That doesn’t mean that translation technology isn’t amazing, it just means that it’s still in its fledgling stage.
At this point in the evolution of voice translations, I’m not sure Vocre really adds anything shockingly new. Sure the accelerometer-based interface is cool looking, but it’s not something I would base a purchase on. The integration of Nuance and iSpeech is great, but competing tech is close enough in quality so that you won’t see a huge difference. myLanguage has promised that it will integrate voice calls and texting in the future…but so has everyone else. As much as Disrupt, Scobelizer, and the other big names out there have loved Vocre I just don’t think it stands out as remarkable.
But there is a silver lining. Some technologies grow in leaps and bounds. Voice translation has more of a “slow and steady wins the race” sort of vibe to it. Every competitor that enters this field is making incremental improvements to some parts of the process. myLanguage has done well with their presentation, their integration of other technologies, and their crowd-sourced language database. Small improvements, but good ones. Google, Jibbigo, and others have slightly different strengths. Meanwhile speech to text companies are making modest positive changes as well. The more businesses that enter the fray the more progress we can count on. It may take a while, we may have to drag this technology forward inches at a time, but it is getting better. Vocre may not be the solution, but it’s part of the solution.
The language barrier is getting closer to falling down. Just wait a little while longer.