The days of a Universal Translator like the one that made communication between alien species a non-issue in Star Trek might be some way off yet. But a new device from NEC is definitely a step in the right direction for those of us on planet Earth looking for a way to communicate with other language speakers that doesn’t involve a human translator or a well-thumbed phrase book. The prototype device called a “Tele Scouter” is a glasses type display that translates the foreign language being spoken by a partner and projects the translation onto a tiny retinal display.

The device mounted on an eyeglass frame consists of the retinal display, front-mounted camera and microphone, but doesn’t perform the translation itself. Rather the microphone picks up the conversation and transmits it to a portable computer worn on the user’s waist. This computer in turn transmits the information to a remote server, which is responsible for carrying out the heavy processing of converting the speech to text, translating it and sending it back to the wearable parts of the system to be displayed on the retinal display.

This configuration allows for a device that is small and lightweight enough to be worn comfortably, without chewing through battery power. And since the retinal display projects the text into the user’s peripheral vision they are able to maintain eye contact with the person they are talking to. Also, because the wearer doesn’t have to focus their eye on the displayed text, the device can be worn for extended periods without eye strain.

At present the device’s translation abilities aren’t sufficient for real world applications, so NEC plans to initially market the device as a wearable hands-free data display that could be used to show engineers and on- and off-site technicians user guides and manuals while installing or repairing hardware. The system would also allows instructions from a single expert to be delivered to multiple personnel wearing the devices, while recording the repairs is captured by the front-mounted camera.

NEC is aiming to begin shipping the Tele Scouter system in 2010, with a system to suit the needs of 30 users estimated to cost around 750 million yen (approx. US$8.2 million at time of publication). Even at that price NEC is hoping to have sold 1,000 systems in three years.