Not all that long ago, if you told someone there was a device that allowed your spoken words to instantly be heard in another language, they might not believe you. Well, there are now several such gadgets available, and we recently tried out a unique new model – Misway Technology's Smark two-way translator.
Unlike standalone devices such as ili, Smark isn't limited to recognizing and translating only commonly-used words and phrases. Instead, it accesses the internet to utilize your choice of one of four online translation services, including Google Translate.
On the upside, this means that pretty much anything you say can be translated into any of 36 other languages, so you're not just limited to stuff like "Can you call me a taxi?". On the downside, though, it also means that you'll need to have access to a local Wi-Fi network, or you'll have to insert an optional SIM card into the device and incur roaming fees – Misway offers its own data plans.
That said, we're told that future firmware updates should allow users to download whole language files, allowing for offline use.
The Smark itself has a color LCD touchscreen in the middle, with two microphone-equipped modules on either end. You can detach one of these and hand it to the person you're talking to (it's Bluetooth-enabled), the idea being that they'll be able to sit back and speak into it walkie-talkie-style, instead of having to lean forward and speak into the main device along with you.
To carry on a conversation with them, you start by using the screen to select your own language for your module, along with their language for their module. You then press and hold the mic button on your module, wait for a beep to sound, slowly and clearly say your bit, then release the button. Smark displays the text of what its voice recognition system thinks you said (in your language), plus it verbally plays that message back to the other person in their language.
Just to make things confusing, when they respond in their language, they have to wait for two beeps before speaking – one when they initially press the mic button, and another when the main device's recording system kicks in. Their reply is played back to you in your language, and the conversation goes on from there. If you later want to review something they said, you can scroll back through the saved text of the conversation.
While the voice recognition system is OK at discerning what each person says, it's definitely necessary for both people to check the text on the screen every time they speak, to make sure they haven't been misinterpreted. This means that the other person will be looking at the main device's screen all the time, so that whole business about them not having to lean in kind of goes out the window.
One other interesting feature is the multilingual Conference mode, in which several nearby Smark devices can be wirelessly linked together. When any one person speaks into their device in their language, their message is simultaneously played back in multiple other languages on the other Smarks – and yes, the device does have a headphone jack.
For regular one-to-one conversations, however, you may be wondering what Smark offers that the free Google Translate smartphone app doesn't. Well … we tried both the device and the app for translating back and forth between English and a few different languages (Dutch, French, Mandarin, Hungarian and German), and found that the two performed similarly both at voice recognition and translation. That said, one possible advantage to Smark is the fact that if you plan on having a lot of conversations, you won't have to worry about using up your phone's battery – one USB charge of Smark's battery is good for about three hours of use.
Smark is the subject of a just-launched Kickstarter campaign, where a pledge of $179 will get you one, assuming it reaches production. The planned retail price is approximately $319.
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